Migration: Saharan Smuggling Route

As noted in our event on the migration crisis in Europe, political leaders are preparing to meet in Malta in order to discuss measures to curtail the influx of migrants and refugees from Africa to Europe. In this fantastic article, entitled On the road in Agadez: desperation and death along a Saharan smuggling route Patrick Kingsley meets the smugglers and the smuggled on a route through the desert from Niger. As written by Patrick Kingsley: The going rate between Agadez and Libya is thought to be about 150,000 West African francs (CFA), or £166. But one traveller said he paid as much as €500 (£363), while Mahamadou claims he charges each of his 30 passengers as little as 50,000 CFA (£55). Even this amount is more than many in west Africa earn in one month, and perhaps counter-intuitively, that is why people are paying it. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), most of those who pass through Agadez are not fleeing wars or political repression (unlike the vast majority of those reaching Europe from other routes, who are mostly refugees). Instead, they are largely trying to find a way out of grinding poverty. The international community does not deem this a legitimate reason to seek a new life in Europe. But the people passing through Agadez do, otherwise they wouldn’t risk death in trying it.

Mahamadou, a Cameroonian people smuggler says:

The white man arrived in Africa by sea without a visa … And we have learned to travel from the white man.

Perhaps the worst part of the journey happens on arrival in Libya. Most passengers are dropped off in Qatroun, the first major town over the border, or in Sabha, further to the north. A few of them won’t have paid upfront, and so the macabre understanding is that they will be locked in a compound in Libya until either their families or sympathetic local migrant workers pay a ransom.

At last, on Monday afternoon, each smuggler gathers 30 passengers outside their compound, and crams them into the back of their Toyota. Sometimes the drivers come from Libya, and the profits are shared between him and the Nigerian compound owner. Other times it’s Nigerians like Mahamadou who do the driving themselves. Either way, both methods see the smugglers try to squeeze every last drop of profit from their clients. The passengers are packed so tightly that those on the outside face outwards, with their legs hanging from the parapet. Once in position, they grip on to sticks attached to the car frame, to stop them falling out when the car picks up pace.

Everyone has a story like that of Paul Ohioyah, a Nigerian who passed through Agadez this summer. Ohioyah is a plumber and part-time pastor, who borrowed $3,000 (£1,950) to head to Europe. Why? Because back home, he says, he couldn’t put food on the table; he’d get only two plumbing jobs a month. “So before you’ve got another customer, you’ve had to spend what you earned the last time,” says Ohioyah, 31. “It’s better that I die here than I go back to Nigeria.”

Ohioyah’s friend, Ojeomokhai Felix, has even stronger rhetoric. “Countries at war are better than Nigeria,” argues Felix, a 33-year-old engineer. “People are still dying there of hunger or sickness because they have no money for food or hospitals. Somebody who sold his house for $3,000 to go to Europe can’t go back to his country. It’s better he kills himself than goes back.”

Driving people like Felix to Libya is now supposed to be illegal. In May, following pressure from the EU, which runs two missions in the country, the Nigerien government banned people-smuggling. Agadez’s police chief, who asks to be referred to by his role rather than his name, is keen to talk about his enforcement of the ban. Since May, he says, his men have arrested 14 smugglers; another was successfully encouraged to retire from the trade.

But what about corruption – do smugglers still bribe policemen to let them through their checkpoints? “Two years ago, what you said could be a reality,” claims the chief. “But after that event, all the policemen who did that were sent elsewhere. And because of that, the newcomers are very afraid. So now no vehicle goes by the checkpoint of the police.”

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