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Human smuggling: the pride of Niger's economy

Niger would be in for a rough ride if efforts to end human smuggling were taken seriously, and the European Union knows it.

I'm Luca Raineri, and I'm a research fellow at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa Italy. I have been carrying out field research mostly in the Sahel, Mali, Niger, and Senegal dealing with extra-legal economies and the trafficking taking place in this huge Saharan region. This includes weapons trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and human smuggling.

The people who are close to the current regime are also the very same people who are running the industry of human smuggling.

Neil Howard (oD): And can you tell us a little bit more about the smuggling end of your research?

Luca: There's a lot of talk these days about human smuggling moving across the Sahara, and towards Europe and Italy in particular. Niger probably is the hub of these routes. What we see in Niger these days is that the very infrastructure of human smuggling is related to how the country is ruled. It's governed in a much more hybrid way of ordering the country rather than the Westphalian form that we're used to. And in this sense, it's interesting to note that people who are very close to the current regime – the current democratic regime – are also the very same people who are running the industry of human smuggling.

Neil: So, the industry of human smuggling is almost a part of the state or pseudo-state apparatus?

Luca: It's something that contributes to the income and stability of the current government. For instance, the bus companies – which are very much linked to human smuggling – are said to be sponsors of the current government. If the government wanted to disrupt trafficking or smuggling, these people – who are very powerful, probably the most significant economy in the country – should look for another patron. That would undermine the stability of the regime.

Furthermore, those who are driving cars, and busses, and vans across the Sahara north of Agadez are also often the same people who engaged in insurgencies and rebellion a few years ago. Therefore, you can understand that the government is not so keen on depriving these people of their current jobs, despite the fact that they are not completely legal.

The third element worth stressing is that also the army is making huge money through the industry of human smuggling. A fee is levied on all those who are passing along the main smuggling routes in the country. This is a country where several coups d'état took place which overthrew previous regimes – five of them, possibly more depending on what one counts as a coup – so, you can understand that the powers that be need to make sure that the security apparatus is quiet. Therefore, they probably see the perpetration of such systematic solicitation of bribery, or of a racket carried out to the detriment of migrants, as a sort of lesser evil in comparison to the destabilisation of the country.

Migrants sit on top of a truck that is about to leave the city of Agadez, Niger, in April 2015. Kristin Palitza/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Neil: Given that the European Union has a strong interest in the country, and in particular in the flows of people who are predominantly destined to arrive on European shores, how does the EU engage with this paradox?

Luca: The paradox is interesting due to the fact that Europe has many and competing objectives in this country. On the one hand, of course, they want to prevent migratory flows from reaching Europe. Which, by the way, is a biased way of looking at things, because at least Nigerians from Niger do not tend to go to Europe. They predominantly move to and work in Libya due to long-standing, established connections with people in there. This is the case for many people who cross Niger, and Agadez in particular. They go to Libya – they just don't want to come to Europe. But still, the European Union is trying to prevent mobility in all senses across the country.

On the other hand, Europe is very interested in preserving the stability of the country. It must be said: Niger has proved to be a very strong ally of the European Union in the fight against regional instability and terrorism. They're fighting terrorism in Mali, they're fighting it in Nigeria. They are facing a civil war in Libya. So, it's a sort of island of relative stability that has very much supported the attempts of the European Union to preserve some sort of modicum of stability in the whole region.

The point is that the preservation of national and regional stability is very much linked to the perpetuation of the regime, which, in turn, is linked to the perpetuation of trafficking, too. The two objectives can hardly stand together. The result of this is that the European Union is basically condoning many practices that serve neither, including the alleged over-corruption of the regime.

The preservation of national and regional stability is very much linked to the perpetuation of the regime, which, in turn, is linked to the perpetuation of trafficking.

Neil: Does the European Union address this profound contradiction between two European objectives publicly in any way, or does a silent hypocrisy govern this status quo?

Luca: It's hard to say, as the European Union itself should not be seen in my opinion as a unitary actor, but as something that is crossed by different tensions, priorities, imperatives, etc. For some countries, the preservation of regional stability, including preventing the flow of weapons from Libya across Niger to Mali, is the key strategic objective. That's true particularly for France.

For other countries, particularly for southern European countries like Italy, the discontinuation of human smuggling across Niger is the key objective. It's part of a negotiation. They do not really address this in public, because they cannot publicly say that, at the end of the day, the survival of the regime can benefit from the perpetration of trafficking and smuggling.

The European Union has urged the government of Niger to adopt a law which foresees very harsh penalties for all those who are engaged in human smuggling, in a very broad sense. This is much broader than the definition found in existing UN protocols. Now this law, which was seen as the pillar of the European strategy to prevent human smuggling from taking place in the country, is the most unpopular law in the country, as an EU officer told me. So they need to cope with a certain degree of impunity, and it took a couple of years before it was bashfully implemented.

Neil: Part of EU anti-smuggling/trafficking initiatives revolve around the idea of raising costs – putting up obstacles to force migrants to pay more and more, thereby reducing the flow. How does this strategy play out in the Sahel, and has your research found that such policies create unwanted side effects?

Luca: The overall idea of the European policy to clamping down on migratory flows across the Sahel was precisely this. By introducing increasing barriers in terms of military interdictions, militarisation of the borders, criminalisation of certain practices, etc., costs would go up. People would have to pay organised groups and networks that can provide the means to overcome all the barriers. So that was the main idea, and it was quite plainly assumed by European actors off the record.

'We hit the road in order not to take weapons.'

This generally failed to happened, because of the large impunity that we mentioned before. Due to this impunity, this market doesn't actually work as an extra-legal market. It's normalised and even institutionalised to a certain extent. The result is a booming market, because the demand for migratory services is huge across the country and some forward-looking entrepreneurs are willing to invest in this industry.

This has increased the supply of services hugely, at least until late 2016. The organisation of traffickers is not even hidden: it's called the bureau de trafiquants, the Smugglers Bureau. They told me 'there's just too many of us, we cannot control it, so prices go down'. If you look at the data or ask the people, the prices to be smuggled tend to go down. People are very willing to go through Niger.

At the end of the day, the result of European policies is that European policies are often irrelevant and neglected. They don't have much impact. It’s a waste of money, but the situation is actually safer for migrants than if they were – in practice – criminalised. In the last few months, in fact, Niger has tightened some controls across Agadez, because of increasing EU pressures. As a result, migrants are taking less safe routes, and many have been discovered dead in the desert.

Neil: One final question which comes to me is, do you have any thoughts on what could or would or should be an alternative European policy?

Luca: It's very hard to say. The problem is that it's the very objective of European policy that makes very little sense to me. If you want to preserve the stability of the country, and given that the country cannot provide sufficient jobs to absorb the huge demographic boom and therefore absorb the youth, migration probably represents the best opportunity they have apart from engaging in fighting or crime. This is what many people told me, 'we hit the road in order not to take weapons' – ‘On prend la route au lieu de prendre les armes’.

So, if you want to preserve stability, you need to let people at least migrate, if not come to Europe. On the other hand, if you want to promote the development of the country, probably one of the best working strategies so far seen is the remittances of migrants themselves – which often work better than development programmes. So, again, if you want to promote development, just let them migrate. The point is that migration can be the solution of most of the problems that the European Union wants to address. But it's portrayed as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution.

About the authors

Luca Raineri is a research fellow at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa Italy.

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

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