By Selase Kove-Seyram
For seven days, Kwasi Prah, 34, had been stuck in Agadez. He had traveled from Ghana to the Nigerien desert city hoping to cross over the Sahara Desert into Tripoli, Libya. He had succeeded once before: crossed the desert, arrived in Libya, then sailed to Italy before he finally arrived in the United Kingdom after paying a smuggler to carry him inside a cargo truck. But when the police found him he was arrested and deported to Ghana for entering the UK without a visa. That was back in the autumn of 2016.
For this second attempt, Prah was more resolute but cautious. He was spending his days scouting for the best person to smuggle him across the Sahara and was well-informed about the presence of military officers who might stop him.
They seize cars, arrest the drivers and keep migrants as refugees until they get sent back to their countries
In his calculus on risk, being kept as a refugee ranked low, but he was not ready for even that. His focus was on getting to Libya, then crossing the Mediterranean so he could settle in Malta or Germany. If plan A fails, he might try his luck elsewhere. “The United States perhaps,” he said with a mild grin.
[Though] I hear Donald Trump is arresting and deporting more people too.
In October 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – compelled by the growing number of migrants crossing the Sahara to reach Europe – met Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou in Niger’s capital, Niamey. They discussed Niger’s security and the risks of terrorism in the Sahel region, and seeded a strategy for managing surging levels of migration from the region. That year saw the greatest number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving on Europe’s shores, with an estimated 181,000 arriving in Italy before being eventually funneled to other parts of Europe or the Americas. Many of those travelling from West Africa will have passed through Agadez.
Niger received more support after the meeting: the European Union gave the Niger government 610 million euros ($635 million USD) to try and control migration from Niger through Libya to Europe. Germany also donated 100 flat-bed military trucks, 115 motorcycles and 55 satellite phones for Niger’s special army and police counter-terrorism units – high-level support supposed to stop migrants like Kwasi Prah and their smugglers from making it to Libya or Europe.
But on his seventh day in Agadez, Prah made it out on a smuggler’s truck. He’ll decide his next move once he reaches Libya.
In the desert, the military have seized cars belonging to smugglers. Drivers have been arrested. Some migrants have been sent back to their home countries. Shelters where human smugglers keep migrants have been closed down after raids by the Nigerien police. But these are the only deterrents in an intricate web of connections across numerous cities – in West Africa, Libya and Europe – that enable the mass migration to the West through Agadez.
An investigation by our reporters – which included a trip to Niamey, the Nigerien capital, then Agadez; interviews with migrants, smugglers and middlemen; visits to shelters raided by the police in Agadez; conversations with intercity bus drivers across West Africa and interactions with migrants being held in an IOM shelter in Agadez – found:
- Every day, migrants from cities and towns in West Africa arrive in Niamey. To get to Agadez, they either take public buses or engage smugglers who carry them in private vehicles
- On the road to Agadez, police and military officers that line the route ake between 1000 ($1.80 USD) and 5000 CFA ($9 USD) from non-Nigerien travelers at different checkpoints. They threaten to arrest those who refuse to pay
- In West African cities such as Accra, Lagos, Dakar and Conakry, long-distance bus drivers serve as intermediaries between migrants and the smugglers. They negotiate with migrants, transfer money to smugglers and transport migrants to pickup points in Niamey
- In Agadez, smugglers work as part of a network with others in Libya and Europe. Between them, a motley collection of motorbike riders, messengers, facilitators, salesmen, landlords, informants, drivers and money changers in different locations help to keep the chain of migration turning
- Aside from food, shelter and transportation to return home, migrants held within the IOM camps in Agadez are not offered any incentives to discourage them from undertaking future trips across the Sahara Desert
- A promissory fund by the Nigerien government meant to provide alternative and sustainable source of income for migrant smugglers has not taken effect after months of negotiations between the government and the human smugglers. This fund was budgeted for under the 610 million euros given to the government by the European Union
The dream of heading north
For the cash-strapped West African migrant seeking to reach Europe or the Americas, few places on earth hold as much promise as Agadez. Though the journey from here to Libya is still dangerous, exposing migrants to potential robberies or even death in the desert, it is one trip in which migrants have some degree of control. There are no visa requirements. There is no risk of rejection by a consular officer. Those who want to make the trip decide when to go, which smuggler’s services to engage and how quickly they want to get to their desired destination.
And for many, the rewards will always outweigh the risks. To Reagan Jagri, a 22-year old fruit seller from Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city, the lives of his friends and schoolmates who had traveled to Italy – glimpsed through the texts and pictures they sent – appeared far better than his own. He wanted more, so started plotting his route. Spain was his dream destination.
Everyone was moving to Libya, but my target was Algeria. From there, I planned to move to Spain. If all goes well, I can easily go to America or wherever I want
But the road from Ghana to Agadez tested his resolve many times, highlighting not only the dangers of the journey, but the extortion and corruption by security officials, civilians and other actors in the human smuggling business to whom migrants are exposed to.
Although West African citizens can travel freely to other countries in the region under an ECOWAS protocol, migrants trekking to Niger like Jagri say they are forced by police, military, immigration and customs officers at checkpoints to pay unofficial fees or face detention. To avoid detection, some migrants pay bus drivers who promise to keep them safe from the extra scrutiny and extortion by the security. For his part, Jagri paid a handler on his bus to facilitate his passage to Niamey.
Before the trip, the handler advised him to keep his hair and beard bushy; wear a djellaba [a long, loose-fitting unisex outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa] and learn a few words in Hausa, the predominant language in Niger. With that, he could blend in and pass for a Nigerien. It worked. Through Burkina Faso to Niger, he saw other migrants being extorted by security officers but was himself, safe.
They [security officials] will always ask for laissez-passer [permit to cross]. You pay between 1000 and 5000CFA ($1.80 and $9USD) if you don't have one. If you don't pay, they either delay you or detain you
Inside an IOM transit centre in Agadez, many migrants recounted the extortion on the trip from their home countries to Agadez, yet even this pales in comparison to the physical and psychological toll exacted on them on the journey to the north.
Across the Desert
For a number of months in 2015, 32-year old Diallo Adjibou was held in a private cell by kidnappers in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. He shows us a scar on his upper arm and another etched from his forearm towards his neck as evidence of abuse meted out by his kidnappers. His captors released him only after his family paid the ransom. “I had to tell my mother to sell my house in Guinea Conakry to settle with them,” he said.
Adjibou’s kidnapping and the demand for ransoms from relatives is another growing threat for many migrants. A recent report by the International Office Migration (IOM) revealed that
kidnappers made the migrants call their families back home, and often suffered beatings while on the phone so that their family members could hear them being tortured
For Adjibou, the kidnapping and torture weakened his resolve to work in Libya for a while, so he returned to Agadez instead. “I cannot go back to Conakry empty-handed. I need to make enough for my mother and two daughters,” he said in an interview at the bus station, where he has been selling secondhand sneakers for over a year. To make enough money, he has also taken a role in this trade of peoples across the desert, scouting for new migrants planning to make the journey to Libya, whom he introduces to a smuggler for a fee. “Libya is dangerous, you have to be careful,” he says.
I cannot go back to Conakry empty-handed. I need to make enough for my mother and two daughters
Caught between the dangers of travelling across the desert and returning home empty-handed, Adjibou has decided to travel to Libya again, only this time with a trusted smuggler who has a proven record of not colluding with kidnappers or robbers.
The Migrant's Story
The smuggler’s story
Long before it caught the world’s attention as a point for illegal migration from Africa to Europe, Agadez was an important passageway for the medieval caravans trading between cities in West and Northern Africa. For many in Agadez today, the city’s importance as a gateway to North Africa and the rest of the world cannot be discounted even as the EU supports Niger to try and stop migration from places like this.
Inside a black Peugeot 207 sedan on a dusty suburb road in Niamey, Masud Mahmood, a 36-year old active in the business of carrying migrants from Agadez to Libya, spoke about his trade. “Ask anybody in Niger, and they will tell you nobody can stop us from traveling through the desert to Libya, Chad or Algeria. That’s how our great grand parents lived,” he began.
What they are calling human smuggling is business
As a boy, Mahmood traveled across the desert to Libya many times. In 2004, he went to work as a house help for a family in the Libyan city of Sabha. He was content. “I took about $115 dollars a month. I didn’t have to pay for food and the family also gave me a place to sleep for free,” he recalls with a wistful smile. That was before he got married and had a child. He later took a job as a driver, carrying passengers and contraband cigarettes from West African cities into Libya. After the overthrow of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Mahmood saw the opportunity for another kind of business that was gaining currency. “The Libyan navy was helping people into boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe,” he recalls.
I put my savings together and bought a Toyota Hilux to carry passengers who wanted to travel from Agadez to Libya.
Within months, he had made enough profit to buy another vehicle. He hired two new drivers and became a supervisor. The Toyota Hilux pickup truck is the vehicle of choice for drivers on the desert. A total of 25 migrants are packed into the back of the truck for the two-day journey across the desert from Agadez to Libya. Mahmood pays 35,000CFA ($63USD) to the police in Agadez and an additional 1,000 CFA ($1.80 USD) per passenger. As a key player in the smuggling business, he works with other intermediaries. There are motorbike riders, messengers, facilitators, salesmen, landlords, informants, drivers and money changers in different locations, who help to keep the chain of migration running. He makes sure everyone in his network is taken care of.
To run a successful business", he says "you have to know and take care of all these people
The month Chancellor Merkel visited Niger, he suffered a major setback when his drivers were arrested by soldiers in the desert. The cars were seized and both drivers were jailed. The migrants were temporarily kept in an IOM transit center and later deported. During that time, the government of Niger told smugglers about the promissory fund meant to provide an alternative and sustainable source of income for migrant smugglers. Mahmood signed up for it, adding his name to a list of more than 200 Nigeriens known to be active in the smuggling business.
The government asked us what we wanted and we all said we needed 2million CFA ($3,600 USD) each out of the money the EU gave. The government said it can only provide 800,000 CFA ($1,440 USD) per smuggler
But he claims nine months on there is still no plan or resolution between the government and the smugglers.
For him, the impasse on the distribution of the EU fund is an indication that illegal migration will persist in Agadez. “The top guys in government need to take their share of the money. The smugglers may never get some.” He has since bought a new Toyota Hilux, undeterred by the presence of the military or the jailing of his two drivers. “The desert is huge. The soldiers can arrest some, but not all cars. If 70 cars travel at once, they can only get about 30. The remaining 40 will make it,” he explains, adding that this is also his pitch to new migrants who have concerns about getting caught.
One morning in late July, he received a call from a long distance bus driver who had just arrived in Niamey from Accra. There were two passengers for him. An intermediary, whom Mahmood has never met but has worked with to facilitate the passage of migrants from Niamey to Libya, convinced the two passengers that they could get to Italy. Adams Boamah, one of the two passengers, had an idea of what lay ahead. “I’ve seen YouTube videos of migrants drowning. I know it’s dangerous,” he said. But he also knows someone – a former street hawker who used to work on the streets of Accra – who made it to Italy using the same route. On his WhatsApp chat log, he showed pictures of the man in Italy alongside the tips and directions he’d sent on how to make the trip. It was he who had introduced him to the intermediary that led him to the bus driver that brought them to Mahmood. Per their agreement, Mahmood would not be taking the full cost of the trip from these two passengers until they got to their final destination.
If they get to their destination, I'll know. Then I can contact someone in Ghana who will pay the balance into my account
With the uncertainties surrounding migration across Agadez, some smugglers and the smuggled appear to have worked out mutually-beneficial systems to ensure no one is ripped off.