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“Life is a fight that should be fought” Life in transit: Voices from returning migrants Niger Report 2019 (Part Two)

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Though migration is intrinsic to Niger, movement through the country has been on the rise in recent years. Environmental, socio-economic, and political instability in the region have fueled an increase in northbound migration, particularly since the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Increased insecurity in the region has made Niger a country of geostrategic importance in the trans-Saharan irregular migration corridor. In 2017, there were approximately 330,000 migrants on the move through Niger, with at least 100,000 migrants having passed through the country every year since 2000. Diverse migratory routes from across West Africa have converged for centuries in Niger constituting mixed migration flows with varied motivations, strategies, and goals. Contrary to conventional belief, not all migrants travelling northwards through Niger have Europe in mind: 84% of migration happens internally within the ECOWAS region. However, most of those that do in fact reach Europe have at some point travelled through the country. In fact, three-quarters of all migrants of African origin that have arrived in Italy by boat in recent times have travelled through Niger. Northbound migration flows have been used for centuries across West Africa for both human cargo and commerce, however, these routes are changing. The first part of the Niger Report 2019 expressed how such a shift in migration dynamics has come as a result of the Nigerien government’s crackdown on human smuggling, which de facto illegalized the centuries-old migration industry through the introduction of Law 2015-036. In addition to far-reaching consequences for the local population and economy, the migration industry has been driven underground; migrants, passeurs, and coxeurs have started to take non-traditional routes, crossing the north of Niger and into North Africa through longer and more perilous journeys. Departure locations and routes have changed to circumvent the big cities and lookouts have been posted in the desert to warn drivers about military patrols, as the region has become increasingly militarised since the crackdown started in 2015. West African migrants are now smuggled among Nigerien workers to avoid being detected, and police extortion and bribes at checkpoints are becoming increasingly common. Migrants are crossing into Algeria in increasing numbers and in response to this influx, the Algerian military has started forcibly deporting migrants back into Niger, often done through questionable means as it has been reported that migrants are often dumped back in the desert at the Algerien border with Niger. Additionally, East Africans are increasingly travelling to Niger through Chad in order to avoid the dangers of transiting in Southern Libya. Of those making their way through Libya, many end up returning either due to the failure to reach Europe, or due to the abuses experienced in Libya at the hands of smugglers and authorities. Subsequently, Niger has become a temporary home to many of the returning migrants in the region as those returning from both Libya and Algeria end up in Niger; some will try their luck and travel north again, while others wait in Niger to return to their home countries or seek opportunities in another West African country. Of those wanting to go back to their countries of origin, many do so through IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) program, and as a consequence will stay in Niger’s ‘transit centres’ for extended periods of time.
Our Central Mediterranean Survey sought to understand the experiences of migrants who were making their way to Europe. This time, Xchange Foundation has investigated what happens to those who either did not plan to cross the Mediterranean in the first place or did not manage to do so successfully. Seeking to understand the experiences of these returning migrants, Xchange was in Niger to carry out field research. As the first part of the Niger Report 2019 expressed, Agadez is one of the biggest migration hubs for Sub-Saharan Africans travelling northwards, towards Libya and Algeria, or southwards. During its one-month mission in Agadez, Xchange Foundation collected first-hand data and testimonies from migrants transiting through Niger in mixed migration flows across Africa. These qualitative data considered the complex routes being taken by migrants, the abuse and human rights violations they experienced since leaving their homes, as well as their intended destinations and expectations from their outward travels. The research project involved returning migrants (via Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) and personal volition), expelled migrants from neighbouring countries (Algeria and Libya), and recipients of UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Mechanism (EMT) arriving in Niger from Libya.