Europe has been grappling with the migration problem on its side of the Mediterranean for several years now with little sign of bringing the situation under control, but there is also an African frontline, on the edges of the Sahara. In the impoverished nation of Niger, the town of Agadez is a major hub for migration towards Europe via Libya. A controversial government crackdown on people smuggling has reduced the flows but caused economic hardship for the the local population who relied on the migration business. And EU funds in support of alternatives have not yielded much results. Euronews' Valerie Gauriat has just returned from Niger. This is her report.
Scores of four-wheel drives have just arrived from Libya, at the checkpoint of the city of Agadez, in central Niger, Western Africa’s gateway to the Sahara.
Every week, convoys like these travel both ways, crossing the thousand kilometers of desert that separate the two countries.
Travelers are exhausted after a 5-day journey.
Many are Nigerian workers, fleeing renewed violence in Libya, but many others are migrants from other western African countries.
"When we get to Libya, they lock us up. And when we work we don’t get paid," said one Senegalese man.
"What happened, we can’t describe it. We can’t talk about everything that goes on, because it's bad, it’s so bad !" said another, from Burkina Fasso.
Many have already tried to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
"We paid for it, but we never went. They caught us and locked us up. I want to go home to Senegal now, that's my hope," said another man.
Mohamed Tchiba organised this convoy. This former Touareg rebel is a well-known figure in Agadez's migration business, which is a long-standing, flourishing activity despite a law against irregular migration which made it illegal two years ago.
EU-funded reconversion projects were launched to offset the losses, but Mohamed refuses to give up his livelihood.
"I'm a smuggler, even now I'm a smuggler! Because I've heard that in town they are giving us something to give up this job. But they did not give me anything. And I do not know any other work than this one," he told us.
We head to Agadez, where we find dozens of vehicles in a car park. They were confiscated from the smugglers who were arrested by the police, and are a slowly-rusting symbol of the fight against irregular immigration.
But that didn’t go down well with the local population. The law hit the local economy hard
Travelers departing for Libya were once Ibrahim’s main source of revenue, but now customers for his water cans are scarce. The layoffs of workers after the closure of gold mines in the area did not help.
"Before, we sold 400 to 500 water cans every week to migrants, and cans were also sent to the mine. But they closed the road to Libya, they closed the mines, everything is closed. And these young people stay here without working or doing anything, without food. If they get up in the morning, and they go to bed at night, without eating anything, what will prevent them one day from going to steal something?" wonders trader Oumarou Chehou.
Friday prayers are one of the few occasions when the city comes to life.
We go to meet with the President of the so-called Association for former migration workers.
He takes us to meet one of the former smugglers. After stopping their activity they have benefited from an EU-funded reconversion programme.
Abdouramane Ghali received a stock of chairs, pots, and loudspeakers, which he rents out for celebrations. We ask him how business is going.
"It depends on God ... I used to make much more money before; I could get up to 800 euros a week; now it’s barely 30 euros a week,” he says.
Abdouramane is still among the luckiest. Out of 7000 people involved in the migration business, less than 400 have so far benefited from the reconversion package: about 2000 euros per project. That's not enough to get by, says the president of the Former Smugglers' Association, Bachir Amma.
"We respected the law, we are no longer working, we stopped, and now it’s the State of Niger and the European Union which abandoned us. People are here, they have families, they have children, and they have nothing. We eat with our savings. The money we made before, that's what feeds us now, you see. It's really difficult, it's very hard for us," he says.
We catch up with Abdouramane the next morning. He has just delivered his equipment to one of his customers, Abba Seidou, also a former smuggler, who is now a taxi driver. Abba is celebrating the birth of his first child, a rare opportunity to forget his worries.
"Since it's a very wonderful day, it strengthened my heart, to go and get chairs, so that people, even if there is nothing, they can sit down if they come to your house. The times are hard for immigration, now; but with the small funds we get, people can get by. It's going to be okay," the proud father says. Lots of other children gather round.
"These kids are called the" talibe ", or street kids," reports euronews' Valerie Gauriat. "And the celebration is a chance for them to get some food. Since the anti-smuggling law was implemented, there are more and more of them in the streets of Agadez.”
The European Union has committed to spending more than one billion euros on development aid in a country classified as one of the poorest in the world. Niger is also one of the main beneficiaries of the European emergency fund created in 2015 to address migration issues in Africa. But for the vice-president of the region of Agadez, these funds were only a bargaining chip for the law against irregular immigration, which in his eyes, only serves the interests of Europe.
"Niger has received significant funding from the European Union. Do you believe these funds are not used properly?"
Vice-President of the Agadez Regional Council, Aklou Sidi Sidi:
"First of all the funding is insufficient. When we look at it, Turkey has received huge amounts of money, a lot more than Niger. And even armed groups in Libya received much more money than Niger. Today, we are sitting here, we are the abyss of asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, displaced people. Agadez is an abyss," he sighs.
In the heart of the Sahel region, Niger is home to some 300,000 displaced people and refugees. They are a less and less transitory presence, which weighs on the region of Agadez. One center managed by the International Office for Migration hosts migrants who have agreed to return to their countries of origin. But the procedures sometimes take months, and the center is saturated.
"80 percent of the migrants do not have any identification, they do not have any documents. That means that after registration we have to go through the procedure of the travel authorisation, and we have to coordinate this with the embassies and consulates of each country. That is the main issue and the challenge that we are facing every day. We have around 1000 people in this area, an area that's supposed to receive 400 or 500 people. We have mattresses piled up because people sleep outside here because we're over our capacity. Many people are waiting on the other side. So we need to move these people as quickly as possible so we can let others come," says the IOM's transit centre manager, Lincoln Gaingar.
Returning to their country is not an option for many who transit through Niger. Among them are several hundred Sudanese, supervised by the UNHCR. Many fled the Darfur conflict, and endured hell in Libyan detention centres. Some have been waiting for months for an answer to their asylum request.
Badererdeen Abdul Kareem dreams of completing his veterinary studies in the West.
"Since I finished my university life I lost almost half of my life because of the wars, traveling from Sudan to Libya. I don't want to lose my life again. So it's time to start my life, it's time to work, it's time to educate. Staying in Niger for nothing or staying in Niger for a long time, for me it's not good."
But the only short-term perspective for these men is to escape the promiscuity of the reception center. Faced with the influx of asylum seekers, the UNHCR has opened another site outside the city.
We meet Ibrahim Abulaye, also Sudanese, who spent years in refugee camps in Chad, and then Libya. He is 20 years old.
"It was really very difficult, but thank God I'm alive. What I can really say is that since we cannot go back home, we are looking for a place that is more favourable to us, where we can be safe, and have a better chance in life."
Hope for a better life is closer for those who have been evacuated from Libyan prisons as part of an emergency rescue plan launched last year by the UNHCR. Welcomed in Niamey, the capital of Niger, they must be resettled in third countries.
After fleeing their country, Somalia, these women were tortured in Libyan detention centers. They are waiting for resettlement in France.
"There are many problems in my country, and I had my own. I have severe stomach injuries. The only reason I left my country was to escape from these problems, and find a safe place where I could find hope. People like me need hope," said one of them.
A dozen countries, most of them European, have pledged to welcome some 2,600 refugees evacuated from Libya to Niger. But less than 400 have so far been resettled.
"The solidarity is there. There has to be a sense of urgency also to reinstall them, to welcome them in the countries that have been offering these places. It is important to avoid a long stay in Niger, and that they continue their journey onwards," says the UNHCR's Alessandra Morelli in Niamey.
The slowness of the countries offering asylum to respect their commitments has disappointed the Niger government. But what Niger's Interior minister Mohamed Bazoum most regrets is a lack of foresight in Europe, when it comes to stemming irregular immigration.
"I am rather in favor of more control, but I am especially in favor of seeing European countries working together to promote another relationship with African countries. A relationship based on issuing visas on the basis of the needs that can be expressed by companies. It is because this work is not done properly, that we have finally accepted that the only possible migration is illegal migration," he complains.
Estimated from 5 to 7,000 per week in 2015, the number of migrants leaving for Libya has fallen tenfold, according to the Niger authorities. But the traficking continues, on increasingly dangerous routes.
The desert, it is said in Agadez, has become more deadly than the Mediterranean.
We meet another one of the smugglers who for lack of alternatives says he has resumed his activities, even if he faces years in prison.
"This law is as if we had been gathered together and had knives put under our throats, to slit our throats. Some of us were locked up, others fled the country, others lost everything," he says.
He takes us to one of the former transit areas where migrants were gathered before leaving for Libya, when it was allowed. The building has since been destroyed. Customers are rarer, and the price of crossings has tripled. In addition to the risk of being stopped by the police and army patrols, travelers have to dodge attacks by arms and drug traffickers who roam the desert.
"Often the military are on a mission, they don't want to waste time, so sometimes they will tell you,'we can find an arrangement, what do you offer?' We give them money to leave. We must also avoid bandits. There are armed people everywhere in the bush. We have to take byways to get around them. We know that it's dangerous. But for us, the most dangerous thing is not to be able to feed your family! That's the biggest danger!"
We entered one of the so-called ghettos outside Agadez, where candidates for the trip to Europe through Libya hide out, until smugglers pick them up. We are led to a house where a group of young people are waiting for their trip to be organized by their smuggler.
They have all have already tried to cross the desert, but were abandoned by their drivers, fleeing army patrols, and were saved in the nick of time. Several of their fellow travelers died of thirst and exhaustion.
Mohamed Balde is an asylum seeker from Guinea.
"The desert is a huge risk. There are many who have died, but people are not discouraged. Why are they coming? One should just ask the question!" he says. "All the time, there are meetings between West African leaders and the leaders of the European Union, to give out money, so that the migrants don't get through. We say that's a crime. It is their interests that they serve, not the interests of our continent. To stop immigration, they should invest in Africa, in companies, so that young people can work."
Drogba Sumaru is an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast.
"It's no use giving money to people, or putting soldiers in the desert, or removing all the boats on the Mediterranean, to stop immigration! It won't help, I will keep going on. There are thousands of young people in Africa, ready to go, always. Because there is nothing. There is nothing to keep them in their countries. When they think of the suffering of their families, when they think that they have no future. They will always be ready, ready for anything. They will always be ready to risk their lives," he concludes.