The Agadez region in northern Niger has gone through multiple transformations in its recent history that have affected mobility patterns and local economies. Droughts, the opening and closing of borders and the changing policies of external actors have all had an impact on the region’s socioeconomic situation. Throughout the 20th century, periods of drought were a recurring phenomenon in Niger’s north, with largescale droughts four times throughout the century. Several waves of extreme drought from the late 1960s until the early 1980s led pastoralist Tuareg to change their main livelihood activities and diversify their activities into sectors such as small-scale gardening, and working in uranium mines and the construction sector in Libya and Algeria. Such changes demonstrated a remarkable capacity for adaptation and a flexible economic system. When faced with crisis, north- or southward mobility and livelihood diversification offered ways out. In addition to droughts, the discovery of uranium and gold presented new opportunities in the region, as they attracted unemployed young people in search of work that would provide higher earnings than income from a traditional pastoralist lifestyle.
Mobility patterns originating from or crossing through the Agadez region have for a long time been anchored in the nomadic lifestyle of its populations. They were in part caused by the search for different types of livelihoods due to shifting climatic conditions. Mobility patterns were equally impacted by changing political orders that influenced mobility and borderlands in the Sahara and were thus also the result of subsequent opening up and closing off of border regimes with Niger’s northern neighbours Algeria and Libya. Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, border policies towards southern neighbours changed several times. Exploitation of Libya’s oil reserves in the early 1960s and the resulting construction boom led to large numbers of Nigerien Tuareg migrating north for temporary work. The ensuing development of trans-Saharan mobility was strained during the early 1980s due to worsening diplomatic relations, to be reinvigorated again in the later years of the same decade. In the 1990s, due to increasingly worsening relations between Libya and Western countries, and Muammar Qaddafi’s African policy, movement through Niger towards North Africa increased significantly, and now includes migrants from all over the subcontinent.
With the gradual imposition of stricter border enforcement, and the accompanying monitoring and control measures in place since the early 2000s, driven mostly by European funding, external actors have attempted to reverse this trend. At this stage, Libyan border authorities have begun implementing a much stricter policy in the context of increasing collaboration with Western countries whose agenda is aimed at curbing irregular migration from Africa to Europe.
Western donors increasingly gave attention to migration issues in North Africa and the Sahel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. From 2004, border capacity projects began to be funded, with particular components devoted to combatting illegal migration. At the regional level, the heads of state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a common approach on migration in 2008 that was infused with European conceptions about West African migration. This formally turned migration into a political issue. It unveiled the absence of policy coherence in the EU’s approach to West Africa, fostering regional integration on the one hand while seeking to reduce cross-border transit on the other. In Niger, EU-funded programmes aimed at preventing and combating illegal migration trafficking and smuggling of (transit) migrants in Libya and Niger commenced in 2004. Events on the ground, such as the tragic incident in 2013 in which more than 90 migrants lost their lives in the desert in the country’s north, led the EU to push the Nigerien state to take action and clamp down on irregular migration. But the results of such policies, including through the work of the Agence nationale de Lutte contre la Traite des Personnes et le Trafic Illicite des Migrants (ANLTP), created in 2010, remained limited due to low enforcement rates and the fact that migration was not a priority for the government in the capital, Niamey.
As of 2015, however, pressure increased on the Nigerien government to commit to a clampdown on migratory movement in its territory. The continuing high number of sub-Saharan migrants pushed Western policy makers to increase pressure on the Nigerien state, which then enacted Law 2015-36, implemented in late 2016. Law 2015-36, and a wide set of policy initiatives deployed in Niger following the 2015 Valetta Summit later that year, had significant negative effects that have been well documented since 2016. The European Trust Fund (EUTF) was created to promote stability and to address the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa. It provided financial and policy underpinning for the ambitions set out in Valetta and solidified the EU’s approach to migration management in the Sahel.
Niger was the biggest recipient of EUTF funds (€229.9 million) in West Africa. EUTF projects in Niger focused on Nigerien communities, migrants and refugees and had a variety of objectives ranging from economic development and job creation for local communities, to support for migrants and refugees, border reinforcement, and increasing judicial and policing capacities. EUTF programming has often been criticised by the aid community. The main criticisms include a lack of transparency, an overt focus on the securitisation of migration policies, and the drawing of funds away from development cooperation towards projects aimed at reducing migration flows. In Agadez, a common perception on the ground is that the invested funds did not reach those most in need and that the population of Agadez was largely left behind. The reasons behind such perceptions may be manifold but seem to point to a failure on the part of international development projects to sufficiently reach those who suffered income losses due to migration policies.
The EUTF was not the only funding instrument available for policies intended to reduce migratory pressure on Europe. Bilateral development agencies followed suit and began developing similar projects. Following the launch of several EUTF projects, the approach began to trickle down to national capitals. Many bilateral development cooperation agencies started to incorporate migration into their projects in Niger. In addition, international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) implementing projects in the country redirected parts of their programming to migration in response to the growing availability of funds for migration issues. In addition to new programmes, existing bilateral aid programmes were often reframed with a migration focus. This led the head of a European bilateral development agency in Niamey to note, ‘I have never seen this in my career. Everything we do now needs to be framed through a migration lens.’
Various sections of the aid community were engaged in operationalising the new approach to migration following the Valetta summit. As funding became available to finance projects with a specific undertone of addressing the root causes of migration, several UN, NGO and civil society organisations became involved in the operationalisation of the EU discourse on migration. The writing of Law 2015-36 was done in large part by staff of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), who provide technical assistance to governments in drafting legislation that is compliant with international norms and legal frameworks. The rationale behind its support for the drafting of the law criminalising smugglers in Niger was found in the Nigerien state’s 2004 ratification of the Palermo convention on transnational organised crime, which required the introduction of national legislation. While Law 2015-36 goes a long way in following European requests for migration control, UNODC staff maintain that ‘the law is not the problem, the implementation of the law is the problem’.
Since 2016 a large amount of EUTF funding has passed through different UN organisations and international NGOs operating in northern Niger, each of which began operationalising a different aspect of the EU’s external migration policies. In Agadez, a large number of programmes were set up that initially had an almost unique focus on migrants on their way to North Africa and Europe. The broader framework that emerges when examining international agencies’ interventions under EUTF is one where a normative framework is constructed of international norms and standards that echo through the implementation of migration programming. International migration management is based on a number of narratives and concrete actions that seek to render a complex political issue manageable, and a complex phenomenon governable. Such a managerial approach to an inherently political problem is not new and has been experimented with in other countries. It points, however, to a problematic turn in the way international organisations become instrumental in carrying out practices that create moral dilemmas further down the road. A humanitarian aid worker who oversaw project planning in northern Niger commented, ‘We have to navigate these dangerous concepts of a donor that can have really harmful consequences in the field.’
While policy makers behind closed doors quite openly confirm the goals of migration policies in Niger and the Sahel more broadly, public discourse tends to avoid explicitly referring to reducing the movements of sub-Saharan migrants. A senior German diplomat commented on a question about Germany’s foreign policy goals in the Sahel in 2017 that ‘we want to stop the flows’. Other analysts have cited similar comments by Western diplomats in recent years. While such policy goals are apparent throughout the interventions set up by the EU and its member states in Niger and other countries in the region, the public discourse tends to focus on the creation of narratives that legitimise it. In order to arrive at the point of criminalising of migration in Niger, a number of common approaches and narratives around mobility had to be shifted or constructed. Such narratives facilitated the creation of a climate that is repressive of migration flows in Niger’s north, based on arguments of good governance, transnational crime prevention and humanitarian needs. They revolve around the role of the Nigerien state, the role of smugglers and the awareness of migrants.
The Nigerien state traditionally did not consider migration as a key priority until the moment European interest in the matter spiked. Policies and interventions since 2015 have, however, framed the country as a typical example of a ‘transit state’ through which migrants pass on their way to Europe. Such framing is repeated in policy documents, project proposals and the vast array of meetings that take place in the capital, Niamey, on migration matters. The basic framing is that the Nigerien state is host to large migration flows across its territory due to poor border infrastructure and insufficient policing. Such a state of transit-ness ignores both longstanding migration patterns, often temporary or seasonal, from Niger to neighbouring or coastal countries – for instance from Niger’s southern region of Zinder to Algeria – as well as the presence of large numbers of displaced populations on Niger’s territory due to conflict or insecurity in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
The framing allows the issue of migration in Niger, and other African countries, to be perceived as a problem that needs to be managed, governed and solved by different types of interventions. One of the concepts that clearly follows this logic is that of labelling migration’s ‘root cause’ as something that needs to be analysed and tackled. However, such approaches ignore the ongoing internal processes of the Nigerien state towards formulating a national migration policy – replacing them with a securitised approach to migration instead. Linked to this framing of migration as an issue that needs managing is the common approach to state building taken by the international community and donors. In the Weberian view that is often displayed when designing such approaches, a state should be in control of its territory and thus its borders. The Sahara desert is often erroneously portrayed as an ‘ungoverned space’ where intervention is needed in order to reinsert state control.
Another common narrative concerns the need for migrant protection. Migrants are often deprived of agency by policy makers and represented as victims of difficult circumstances. It is commonly assumed that migrants are badly informed about the potential risks of migrating, and are generally unaware of the dangers that lie ahead on their journey; this presumes that migrants are either not informed or misinformed by smugglers. A representative of a UN organization in Niger noted that ‘migrants do not realize the risks of migrating. They think that the Mediterranean Sea is a river’. The often-applied solution is the use of information campaigns to better inform migrants of the risks of migration, in the case of sending countries to deter people from leaving, and in the case of Niger to persuade migrants to return to their home country. Researchers generally consider such campaigns ineffective and ethically questionable. Migrants gather their information elsewhere than from such campaigns, mostly from friends and family in their countries of origin or in countries of destination, and pay very little attention to information provided through the UN, NGOs or the government. In addition, migrants interviewed on migration routes indicate they were aware of the risks they faced.
Linked to the perceived lack of information and the need to bring the risks of migration to migrants’ attention is the need to protect them from the harmful activities of smugglers. The criminalisation of smugglers in Niger is therefore often framed as a means to protect migrants. Smugglers are portrayed as criminals who operate in semi-lawless areas and do not care about the wellbeing of their customers. Parallels are also often drawn between trafficking and smuggling. Smugglers, who facilitate transport or provide ‘irregular’ access to third states, are equated with traffickers, who use coercion to make people leave their homes and exploit people along the way. While the definition of trafficking is internationally agreed upon and protocols are in place internationally to combat it, the same does not apply to smuggling. Conflating the two concepts helps to create the ethical ambiguity needed to push for the criminalisation of smugglers.
The Trust Fund programming is coming to an end, with the initiative set to close for new programming by the end of 2020. The underlying tone of migration programming is likely to continue, however, based on discussions on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) that have been ongoing since 2018. Whereas the creation of a new €89.2 billion Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) as proposed by the European Commission in June 2018 constitutes an overhaul in EU external activity for the period 2021-2027, migration is likely to continue to be a key priority in the EU’s external activities. This is evidenced by it being mentioned as a priority in both the geographic pillar and the thematic pillar of the proposed instrument. The third pillar, which introduces a rapid response capacity and a cushion for emerging challenges and priorities, is likely to be used as well for situations such as mass displacement or arrivals of refugees, or to ‘enable the EU to react swiftly to emerging challenges, for example those linked to migratory pressures’.
The Commission has suggested that 10 percent of its external budget would be earmarked for migration – meaning a budget of close to €9 billion. While such a target has been called out by the aid sector as excessively high, the figure seems not to have shifted in discussions so far and, pending parliamentary scrutiny, has already been adopted by the Council. In addition to NDICI funds, some Justice and Home Affairs funds on asylum, migration and border management might be diverted to external action, adding further to the pot of money available for migration programming. While discussions are still ongoing, it is already clear that the total amount available will largely surpass the €5 billion invested in EUTF over the years and that tackling the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement in third countries will become a cornerstone of all EU external activity.
While such a development might be seen as a worrying trend of doubling down on a policy that has been noted to cause harm to both migrants and host communities, it comes with greater transparency. The Trust Fund has often been criticised for not being transparent and not being sufficiently exposed to parliamentary oversight. The new NDICI funds will be subject to such scrutiny and discussions, as the publication of the 2018 Commission proposals have showcased the ambition of the European Parliament’s committees on development (DEVE) and foreign affairs (AFET) to be more closely involved in the oversight and activities of the instrument. Among the stumbling blocks in the negotiations are: the Commission’s proposal for greater use of delegated Acts, which are those parts of EU law that allow for a more technical and thus less visible and transparent way of programming; and the proposal to make aid conditional upon collaboration on migration issues.
These negotiations, and the underlying dynamics, lay bare the way in which migration policies in the Sahel will continue to be approached in the next budgetary cycle. However, as the following sections will indicate, this approach has had a significant negative impact on the economic situation and governance providers in northern Niger.