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Niger: Submission to the Universal Periodic Review 38th Session of the UPR Working Group, April/May 2021, Issues Related to Immigration Detention

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1. MIGRATION CONTEXT

1.1 Niger has been the site of migration flows across the Sahel region for many years. It has also become an important transit country for migrants travelling north and on to the Mediterranean. The country hosts a large population of refugees: more than 126,000 refugees have sought safety in Diffa (south-east Niger) alone.[i]

1.2 Recently, Niger has become a destination and transit country for people expelled from Algeria and returned (forced or "evacuated") from Libya. These returns have put a huge pressure on Niger, with some observers referring to the country as a "permanent transit centre."[ii]

1.3 Despite border closures, the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Algeria into Niger has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 19 March and 18 April 2020 1,046 persons were deported by Algerian authorities into Niger,[iii] while more than 3,400 were expelled between early September and early October.[iv]

1.4 The country relies on the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to assist non-Nigerien migrants expelled from Algeria. Migrants found in the desert are provided assistance at one of the six IOM-run transit centres. While these are open facilities, the main condition for staying is a willingness to return "voluntarily," though with no other forms of support and assistance migrants may see this as coerced.[v]

1.5 In 2017, UNHCR established the Emergency Evacuation Transit Mechanism---a programme coordinated with international NGOs to remove vulnerable persons from detention in Libya and resettle them in third countries. In December 2017, UNHCR and Niger signed a Memorandum of Understanding, "temporarily expanding the Niger asylum space to these refugees."[vi] As of June 2020, 27 evacuation flights had arrived in Niger from Libya, carrying a total of 3,208 people. On arrival in Niger, UNHCR conducts verification interviews. These are followed by refugee status determination procedures, conducted by UNHCR and the Nigerien government. During this process, non-nationals are housed in the ETM transit facility in Hamdallaye, which can hold up to 1,500 persons. UNHCR reports that migrants here are provided with food, medical care, education, and psychosocial support.[vii]

1.6 Niger has become a central focus of EU migration "management" strategies, with some observers dubbing it "the southern border of Europe."[viii] By 2017, EU engagement had included a pilot project to convince migrants to stop their journeys[ix]; encouraging Niger to pass a law against migrant smuggling (Act No. 2015-36)[x]; a range of capacity-building projects for law enforcement authorities and the judiciary[xi]; and increased cooperation in the "fight against smugglers."[xii]

1.7 At the start of 2019, President Mahamadou Issoufou credited Act No. 2015-36 with causing the number of migrants passing through Niger to drop sharply: from some 100,000/150,000 annually before 2016, to less than 10,000 by 2019. During a visit to Niger that same year, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that the number of migrant arrivals in Italy had subsequently dropped by 80 percent. [xiii]

1.8 While Act No. 2015-36 is ostensibly aimed at smugglers, it also impacts a broad array of activities and severely jeopardises migrants and asylum seekers. According to the UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights of migrants, although supporters of the law claim that it has "contributed to saving lives" of migrants in the Sahara, in reality its implementation "has resulted in the criminalisation of migration [north of Agadez] and has pushed migrants into hiding, which renders them more vulnerable to abuse and human rights violations."[xiv] Indeed, the Act has resulted in a de facto ban on travel north of Agadez. Not only does this violate the principle of freedom of movement of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) nationals, it has also forced migrants to go underground and face conditions that expose them to rights violations.[xv]

1.9 Article 38 of Act No. 2015-36 provides that the return of victims of torture and ill-treatment must comply with the principle of non-refoulement. However, in 2019 the Committee against Torture highlighted allegations that non-nationals had been removed from Niger despite the proven risk that they could be subjected to torture and ill-treatment in the country of return.[xvi]