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The checkpoint on the way out of the Saharan town of Agadez in Niger is nothing more than a long metal chain that stretches across the road. On a Monday afternoon in March, a handful of pickup trucks and lorries loaded with migrants mostly from southern Niger waited quietly at the barrier to embark on the long journey up through the Ténéré desert. An overweight officer inspected the vehicles and then invited the drivers to show him their paperwork inside a somber-looking shack on the side of the road, where money most likely changed hands.
Every Monday afternoon a convoy, protected by an escort of three military pickups, two mounted with machine guns, begins its arduous journey toward Dirkou, 435 miles away, on the road to the Libyan border. Protection has long been needed against highwaymen—or, as they’re called locally, coupeurs de route. These disgruntled Tuareg youths and former rebels roam the foothills of the Aïr Mountains just beyond Agadez. If a vehicle slips out of view of the escort for even a moment, the coupeurs seize the opportunity, chasing and shooting at the overloaded vehicles to relieve the passengers of their money and phones—or sometimes even to take the cars. A cautious driver sticks close behind the soldiers, even if they are pitifully slow, stopping frequently to sleep, eat, drink tea, or extract bribes from drivers trying to avoid the checkpoints.
The first 60 miles out of Agadez—a journey of about two hours through the mountains—were the most hazardous. But then we reached the dusty Ténéré plain. As darkness fell, lighter vehicles picked up speed, making good headway during the night as the cold hardened the sand. Sleepy migrants, legs dangling over the side of the tailboard, held on to branches attached to the frame of the vehicle to keep from falling off.
The following day, there was a stop at Puits Espoir (“Hope’s Well”), midway between Agadez and Dirkou. It was dug 15 years ago to keep those whose transport had broken down in the desert from dying of thirst. But the well’s Arabic name, Bir Tawil, which means “the Deep Well,” is perhaps more apt. The well drops nearly 200 feet, and without a long enough rope to reach the water below, migrants and drivers can perish at its edge. The escort soldiers told me that the bodies of 11 who died in this way are buried in the sand inside a nearby enclosure built from car scraps. Travelers took a nap under its shade or beside the walls around the well, which were graffitied by those who had passed through. There was “Dec 2016 from Tanzania to Libya” or “Flavio—Solo from Guinea.” After Espoir, most vehicles abandon the slow convoy and go off on their own, risking attacks by coupeurs for a quicker journey toward Libya.
Before mid-2016, there were between 100 and 200 vehicles, mostly pickups, each filled with around 30 migrants heading for Libya, that were making such a journey every week. Since mid-2016, however, under pressure from the European Union, and with promises of financial support, the Niger government began cracking down on the northward flow of sub-Saharans, arresting drivers and confiscating cars, sometimes at the Agadez checkpoint itself. Now there are only a few cars transporting passengers, most of them Nigeriens who have managed to convince soldiers at the checkpoint—often with the help of a bribe—that they do not intend to go all the way to Europe but will end their journey in Libya.
“To close Libya’s southern border is to close Europe’s southern border,” Marco Minniti, Italy’s interior minister, said in April at a meeting in Rome with representatives of three cross-border Saharan tribes, the Tubu, Awlad Suleiman Arabs, and Tuareg. The leaders agreed to form a border force to stop migrants entering Libya from traveling to Europe, reportedly at the demand of, and under the prospect of money from, the Italian government. All three communities are interested in resolving the deadly conflicts that have beset the country since the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 and hope Italy will compensate them monetarily for their casualties (in tribal conflicts, a payment is needed to end a fight) as well as fund reconstruction and development of neglected southern Libya. Italy, of course, is keen on halting the flow of migrants reaching its shores and sees these Saharan groups, which have the potential to intervene before migrants even get to Libya, as plausible proxies.
Some tribal leaders in southern Libya—mostly Tubu and Tuareg—look favorably on Italy’s and Europe’s overtures and suggested that the EU should cooperate directly with local militias to secure the border. But their tribes largely benefit from smuggling migrants, and they also made clear this business will not stop unless development aid and compensation for the smugglers is provided. “The EU wants to use us against migrants and terrorism,” a Tubu militia leader told me, off-the-record, on the side of a meeting in the European Parliament last year. “But we have our own problems. What alternative can we propose to our youth, who live off trafficking?”
With or without the EU, some of the newly armed groups in Libya are selling themselves as migrant hunters. “We arrested more than 18,000 migrants,” a militia chief told me, with a hauteur that reminded me of the anti-immigrant sentiment spreading across Europe. “We don’t want just to please the EU, we protect our youths and our territory!”
It seems rather reckless, however, in a largely stateless stretch of the Sahara, for Europe to empower militias as proxy border guards, some of whom are the very smugglers whose operations the EU is trying to thwart. The precedent in Sudan is not encouraging. Last year, Khartoum received funding from the EU that was intended to help it restrict outward migration. The best the government could do was redeploy at the Sudanese-Libyan border the notorious Rapid Support Forces, recruited among Darfur’s Janjaweed militias, which have wreaked havoc in the province since 2003. In due course, their leader, Brigadier General Dagalo, also known as “Hemeti,” claimed to have arrested 20,000 migrants and then threatened to reopen the border if the EU did not pay an additional sum. The EU had already given Sudan and Niger 140 million euros each in 2016. And the Libyan rival factions are catching on, understanding well that the migrant crisis gives them a chance to blackmail European leaders worried about the success of far-right anti-immigrant groups in their elections. In February, with elections looming in the Netherlands and France, the EU made a deal to keep migrants in Libya, on the model of its March 2016 agreement with Turkey, with the Tripoli-based, internationally recognized Government of National Accord, despite the fact it has little control over the country. In August, the GNA’s main rival, eastern Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar, claimed that blocking migrants at Libya’s southern borders would cost one billion euros a year over 20 years and asked France, his closest ally in Europe, to provide him with military equipment such as helicopters, drones, armored vehicles, and night vision goggles. Needless to say, Haftar did not get the equipment.
Dirkou became a migrant hub about 25 years ago and remains a thriving market town whose residents make a living mostly off of road transport to and from Libya. Smuggling people across Libya’s southern borders became semiofficial practice in 1992, as Qaddafi sought to circumvent the UN’s air traffic embargo. This, in turn, opened up an opportunity for ambitious facilitators who could get their hands on a vehicle, a period that came to be known locally as “the Marlboro era.” Planes and trucks, contravening the embargo, delivered cigarettes to Dirkou, where there was already an airstrip long enough for cargo planes. They then sold their contraband to Libyan smugglers, who took them north with help from Nigerien authorities.
Smuggling was possible at the time only if the government was involved, explained Bakri, one of the drivers I met in Dirkou (and who requested his name be changed). Gradually, cigarettes were replaced by Moroccan cannabis, which was driven down from around the Algerian border through Mali and Niger. Tuareg rebels, who had been involved in sporadic insurgencies against the governments of Mali and Niger, began to attack the convoys to steal their cargoes for reselling. The traffickers eventually enlisted them to serve as their protectors, guides, or drivers.
That process began in the 1990s and 2000s when the Niger government and Tuareg rebels held regular peace talks and struck deals that allowed former insurgents to be integrated into the Niger armed forces. Hundreds of fighters who were left to fend for themselves, however, fell back on banditry or drug trafficking, and it wasn’t long before the authorities decided that they should be encouraged to transport migrants to Libya instead. Many now own vehicles that had been captured from the army in the course of the rebellion. These were cleared through customs at half the normal fee, and the Ministry of Transport awarded a great number of them licenses. It was decided that the new fleet of migrant facilitators would take passengers at the bus station in Agadez.
In 2011, after the NATO-backed revolution in Libya had toppled Qaddafi, newly formed Tubu militias took control of most of the country’s arms stockpiles, as well as its southern borderlands. Many young Tubu men from Libya or Niger stole or, like Bakri, who dropped out of the university to become a smuggler, bought a good pickup truck for carrying passengers. The new wave of drivers who acquired their cars during the turmoil were known in Arabic as sawag NATO, or “NATO drivers.”
“If the number of migrants increased,” Bakri told me, “it’s mostly because NATO overthrew Qaddafi.” Qaddafi was able to regulate the flow of migrants into Europe and used it as a bargaining chip. In 2008, he signed a friendship treaty with Italy, which was then led by Silvio Berlusconi. In exchange for Libya’s help to block the migrants, “Il Cavaliere” launched the construction of a $5 billion highway in Libya. Crucially, however, Qaddafi’s regime provided paid work for hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharans, who had no need to cross the Mediterranean. Since 2011, Libya has become a much more dangerous place, especially for migrants. They are held and often tortured by smugglers on the pretext that they owe money and used for slave labor and prostitution until their families can pay off the debt.
In May 2015, under EU pressure, Niger adopted a law that made assistance to any foreigner illegal on the grounds that it constituted migrant trafficking. Critics noted that the legislation contradicts Niger’s membership in the visa-free ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), from which most migrants traveling between Niger and Libya hail (they numbered 400,000 in 2016). The law was not enforced until the middle of last year, when the police began arresting drivers and “coaxers”—the regional term for all intermediaries on the human-smuggling routes up through West Africa. They jailed about 100 of them and confiscated another 100 vehicles. Three months later, the EU congratulated itself for a spectacular drop in migrant flows from Niger to Libya. But the announcement was based on International Organization for Migration (IOM) data, which the UN agency has since acknowledged to be incorrect, owing to a “technical problem” with its database.
Saddiq, whose name has also been changed, is a coaxer in Agadez. He told me that migrants were still arriving in the town in the hope of heading north. “The police are from southern Niger and they are not familiar with the desert,” he said. “For every car arrested, 20 get through.” The cars have gotten faster. One of Saddiq’s drivers traded his old one for a Toyota Tundra, which can reach 120 miles per hour on hard sand. Meanwhile, groups of migrants have gotten smaller and are thus lighter loads. New “roads” have already been pounded out through the desert. Drivers pick up migrants as far south as the Nigerien-Nigerian border, keeping clear of towns and checkpoints. “Tubu drivers have been going up with GPS to open new roads along the Niger-Algeria border,” said Saddiq. “They meet the drug traffickers and exchange food and advice.”
On these new roads, risks are higher for drivers and passengers. Vehicles get lost, break down, and run out of fuel. Thirst is a constant danger, and, as drivers and the IOM warned, deaths increased during the 2017 dry season, which began in May. Drivers pursued by patrols are likely to aim for a high-speed getaway, which means abandoning their passengers in the desert. “Because we couldn’t take the main road, bandits attacked us,” Aji, a Gambian migrant, told me as he recounted his failed attempt to get to Libya last December. “Only 30 kilometers from Agadez, bandits shot at us, killed two drivers and injured 17 passengers, including myself.” They took everything he owned. He was brought back to the hospital in Agadez for treatment for his wounded leg. He was broke and his spirits were low. “I no longer want to go to Libya,” he said.
New liabilities for the smugglers drive up their prices: the fare for a ride from Agadez to Libya before the Niger government decided to curtail the northward flow was around $250. Now it is $500 or more. People with enough money travel in small, elite groups of three to five for up to $1,700 per head. Migrants without enough cash can travel on credit, but they risk falling into debt bondage once in Libya. Even with the higher fees, smugglers’ revenues have not increased. Saddiq’s has fallen from $5,000 a month to around $2,000. Costs, including lavish bribes to Niger’s security forces, have risen sharply. Still, the pace of the trade remains brisk. “I have a brand-new vehicle ready for 22 passengers,” Saddiq told me. That evening, as he loaded up his passengers with their light luggage and jerry cans of water, a motorbike went ahead of it with its headlights off to make sure that the coast was clear.
“Many won’t give up this work, but those who continue are stuntmen,” grumbled one of Saddiq’s colleagues, a Tuareg former rebel who has been driving migrants for more than 15 years. Feeling chased by the authorities, or forced to pay them bribes twice as much as before, Tuareg and Tubu drivers are increasingly angry with the Nigerien government and what they call “the diktat of Europe.” He thought there might be better money in other activities. “What should we do? Become terrorists?” he said, somewhat provocatively. “I should go up to Libya and enlist with Daesh [the Islamic State, or ISIS]. They’re the ones who offer the best pay.”