Europe's Desert Border


BERLIN/ROME/AGADEZ (Own report) - German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, is calling for the deployment of an EU border protection mission along Libya's border with Niger. Because, so far, efforts to seal the border have not had the desired results, further steps must be taken and "fact-finding missions" should be dispatched to the Libyan-Nigerien desert, de Maizière and his Italian counterpart wrote last week in a letter addressed to the EU Commission. By exerting political pressure and offering training programs, Berlin and Brussels had - successfully - induced the Nigerien repressive organs to intervene against undesirable migrants. However, as was to have been expected, the migrants are now taking alternative - and much more dangerous - routes. According to local human rights groups, this is a direct consequence of European pressure leading to a significant rise in the number of deaths along the transit route through the Sahara. Observers report that the EU is proposing agricultural projects to the impoverished town of Agadez, situated in the middle of the desert - an absurd substitution for its loss of income through the lucrative migration business.

Primary Route to the Mediterranean

Libya's border with Niger is presently of particular importance to German-EU efforts to ward off refugees. For some time now, refugees from West Africa have been crossing this border on their primary route to Libya's Mediterranean coastline. According to a recent study, published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS, an African think tank, with offices in Pretoria, Nairobi, Addis Abeba and Dakar) refugees prefer this route because the route to the west of Niger is leading through the dangerous war zone in northern Mali and through Algeria. Crossing Algeria would bring additional complications, because citizens from West African countries need a visa to enter that country. The route leading through the central Nigerien Agadez does not pose visa problems. Since Niger belongs to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), citizens of ECOWAS member countries can travel without visas up to Niger's border with Libya [1] - just as citizens of the Schengen member countries have the right of free passage throughout the Schengen Zone. An eastern route leads through Sudan to Libya, which, as ISS reports, is mainly used by refugees from eastern Africa [2] - where Germany and the EU are active with special measures to ward off refugees. ( reported.[3])

Police Programs

For several years, Berlin and the EU have been seeking to seal Libya's border with Niger. Already on July 16, 2012, the EU had decided to establish the EUCAP Sahel Niger, a non military EU mission, training and counseling Nigerien repressive forces - in the meantime, under pressure from Berlin, also to fight migration. The mission, which also involves German officials, has been expanded with the addition of a field office in Agadez, in central Niger, the town serving as a hub for the transit route to Libya. In 2013, the German Association for International Cooperation (GIZ) development aid agency had initiated a "Police Program" in Niger, which also includes the training of border police. The program is set to run until at least 2018.[4] The International Organization for Migration (IOM), financed by the German foreign ministry and the EU, is also operating a center in Agadez, whose staff is to deter refugees from continuing their journey and motivate them to return to their home countries. It is nearly impossible to deport ECOWAS citizens, because within the ECOWACS zone people have the right of free circulation. During her visit to Niger's capital Niamey in October 2016, Chancellor Merkel promised ten million euros for vehicles and communication technology for controlling illegal trade and migration.[5] The European Agency for the management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) will also open a liaison office in Niamey this year.

Europe Kills

These measures are already proving counterproductive - to put it mildly. Niger's police and military have begun to crack down harder on migrants and refugee smugglers, on the basis of an "anti-human smuggling law" that Niamey passed in May 2015 - under EU pressure. As usual, however, this repression has not halted migration; it has simply forced the migrants to take more dangerous routes. As the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reports, considerably more people have died trying to cross the desert. The May 2015 "anti-human smuggling law," - "born out of European policies against illegal migration" - is the reason why more and more "irregular migrants take enormous risks and regularly end up dead," concludes Hamadou Tchierno, a representative of the local "Alternative Association Citizen Space" human rights organization.[6]

The Economy of Migration

The Berlin and Brussels imposed crackdown on undesirable migration is seriously damaging Northern Niger's regional economy. Transporting people to Niger's northern border has always been part of a "broader political economy," allowing many inhabitants of Agadez to earn their living as drivers, ghetto owners, food merchants, and so forth, explains Peter Tinti, an expert at the "Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime." In a region already experiencing political uncertainty and instability, any major policy intervention like this anti-migration is going to "have repercussions we might not be prepared for," Tinti warned. "Before this witch hunt for migrant smugglers began, the young people of Agadez had work," explains the president of the Agadez region's youth council. "They would transport migrants into Libya or into Algeria and earn a lot of money. But now, most of them are in prison."[7] This is no stabilizing factor in this impoverished region.

Agriculture in the Desert

The EU has now begun initiating measures to relieve some of the economic damage caused by its imposed migrant blocking projects. As Sophie Wolpers, a scholar at the University of Amsterdam, doing research in North Niger explains, Brussels is financing agricultural projects in the region to try to create new alternative employment opportunities. But the effects of the advanced desertification in the Agadez region, mean farming doesn't make sense, says Wolpers. "Agadez has always been a trading hub, so trying to turn these people from traders into farmers isn't going to work."[8]

"A Good Idea"

Because the repression is not even accomplishing its proposed purpose, and migration from Niger to Libya is continuing - albeit over more dangerous routes - the German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, is now proposing that an EU border control mission be dispatched to the Libyan-Nigerien border. "The first few months of this year have shown that so far our measures are insufficient," he and his Italian counterpart, Marco Minniti, wrote in their letter, dated May 11, to the EU Commission. Therefore, "fact-finding missions" must be sent to the Libyan-Nigerien border to "set up an EU mission as quickly as possible."[9] All EU countries should contribute. The objective, according to the report, is "to reach an agreement in principle" in Brussels.[10] Monday - yesterday - EU foreign policy coordinator, Federica Mogherini approved. She said that "strengthening the North African country's border management was 'a good idea'."[11]

[1] ECOWAS is composed of the following countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo.
[2] Peter Tinti, Tom Westcott: The Niger-Libya corridor. Smugglers' perspectives. Institute for Security Studies: ISS Paper 299, November 2016.
[3] See Besetzen und abschotten (II).
[4] See Police Program Africa and Besetzen und abschotten (I).
[5] See Besetzen und abschotten (II).
[6], [7], [8] Ibrahim Manzo Diallo: EU strategy stems migrant flow from Niger, but at what cost? 02.02.2017.
[9], [10] Manuel Bewarder, Christoph B. Schiltz: De Maizière fordert EU-Grenzschutzmission in Libyen. 14.05.2017.
[11] Niamh McIntyre: EU to conduct border patrols in Libya to stop migrants reaching Europe. 15.05.2017.