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Niger: “The law aims to combat migrant trafficking, yet it actually benefits criminal gangs who exploit migrants”

Isidore Ngueuleu OMCT

The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) will examine Niger on 26 and 27 November 2019. To better understand the challenges related to the issue of torture along the migration routes that cross the country, we interviewed Isidore Ngueuleu, OMCT human rights adviser for Africa, on his return from a mission to Agadez, a city in the north which is an obligatory point of passage on the way to the Mediterranean.

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City of Agadez, Niger © Erwan Rogard

View of Agadez Kori, Niger © Erwan Rogard, 2019[/caption]

What image stands out from your visit to Agadez?

It is a city at a standstill, almost silent, the bus station immobile. That was a total contrast to my expectations, because people had told me it was a really lively place, like a condensed version of Saharan Africa, once a magnet for tourists, and of course a crossroads for the flow of migrants in transit. But it is as if the city had become a bunker, after a 2015 law prohibited international migratory movement through Agadez, and the military and police presence was reinforced to ensure that migrants do not cross the border.

Was this law adopted because of a national need, or because of pressure from the European Union (EU)?

Both. The de facto agreement that existed in the Gaddafi era, to put a stop to the flow of migrants to Europe, collapsed due to the chaos in Libya. EU pressure, coupled with offers of investment, reflected the location of Niger as the migration gateway to Europe. Another deciding element was also a 2014 tragedy that moved the country, in whicha a dozen Nigerien migrants died in the desert, including several women and children.

Have the deaths stopped?

Not at all. People continue to migrate for thousands of reasons, and this of course includes irregular migration and people smuggling, but also traditional migration, such as Nigeriens going to Algeria or Libya for seasonal work, to beg, etc. which corresponds to really ancient cultural practices. And people continue to die, and to be attacked, tortured, and raped.

So the 2015 law has not solved anything, but rather driven migration underground?

Migrants have not been discouraged, either by the law or by the multiple dangers they face on their way. The passage through Niger has been well known for decades, with smugglers and drivers working along a well marked-out route. It used to be relatively safe, in the sense that migration operated according to well-established rules. The fact that the law made this migration channel illegal opened the door to other actors who are hardened criminals, and who even come from neighbouring countries (Sudan, Chad) offering new ways of travelling which are much more dangerous.

The paradox lies in the fact that a law which was passed with the intended aim of fighting criminal networks has ended up creating networks which are even more criminal in nature. The result is the same as in Libya, that is to say not only the smuggling of people who want to go from one place to another without respecting the laws of that country, but also people trafficking, that is to say the sale of migrants to actors positioned along the new routes.

I have talked to migrants who have told me they were sold by one driver to another, sometimes two, even three times, and this despite having already paid the whole amount of money to travel through Niger. In the past, such payment was enough to get you right to Libya. Now, people are sold either to slave-owners in Libya, or to militias. In the first case, they can still escape. In the second case, which seems to happen more often, it is much worse: people are detained in so-called “houses” and tortured, sometimes on video, to obtain a ransom from their family in their home country. The payment of a ransom can lead to freedom, however, it sometimes happens that the detention and torture continue, forcing families to pay even more money.

Do you have any examples?

I have talked to a Guinean doctor who was earning poverty wages in his country and who was forced to work on a plantation in Libya, before he was able to return to Niger. A Senegalese man was tortured so brutally in one of the “houses” that he lost the use of one of his legs.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) does searches and when they find out about such a prison, the organisation helps the people return to Niger and offers to repatriate them on a voluntary basis, after physical and psychological rehabilitation for two weeks in the IOM centre in Agadez.

Is there a profile for this kind of migrant?

They come from West Africa – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria – and also from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and in lesser numbers from the Central African Republic, fleeing from the conflict. They are a mixture of people fleeing violence and those searching for a better life.

The alternative report submitted to the CAT by OMCT and its partners in Niger talks about “ghettos” in Agadez where migrants survive …

The reality of the ghettos is twofold. People arriving in Niger live clandestinely in unfinished dwellings, in reality two or three walls without a roof, where overcrowding and lack of hygiene reign, where people are threatened or abused by smugglers and sometimes by the police, and where they have limited access to food and health care. There are also people coming back from Libya - or Algeria for that matter - who are ready to try and make the journey again, because in their eyes returning to their country is not an option, including with the assistance offered to them by the IOM, which they see as very little money.[1]

This is one of the issues we talk about in our report: these “ghettos” do not necessarily constitute detention, but the fact remains that these people are forced to stay in places where their freedom is curbed.

How do people survive in a ghetto?

They depend entirely on humanitarian aid: Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde - MdM) for healthcare and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for food. This support is difficult to access, because the humanitarian organisations struggle to make contact with the migrants who are living clandestinely. The situation is much worse for women, who are a minority among the migrant population, but who are even more invisible and have hardly any chance of being treated in the case of illness. Personally I haven’t seen even one woman.

What figures are we talking about in Agadez?

The IOM states that 80% are people it has supported to return from Libya. During my visit, a convoy with 400 migrants arrived at the IOM transit centre. But other sources have told me that many migrants actually live some 50-100 km outside of the city, in what are known as “gardens”, a euphemism for the lack of any shelter. They travel by night, via even more complicated routes.

You also talk about ill-treatment, even torture, committed by the security forces.

The adoption of the law in 2015 clashes with a Regional Protocol that authorises free movement, and which is still in force. People who arrive at the borders with a valid passport claim this right and clash with immigration officials who threaten them, saying: “If you want to come in, you’ll have to pay”. According to testimonies I have gathered, the situation is particularly serious on the Burkinabe side of the border, where the police torture migrants using electric shocks to obtain this “tax”.

On the Niger side, to cross the 1000 km separating Niamey from Agadez, migrants come into contact with a whole range of security forces: the police, gendarmerie, army, anti-terror squads. As soon as you are identified as a migrant, you automatically represent a danger. You are made to get off the bus, threatened, and told you must pay money to be authorised to continue on your way, even if you have valid papers. Extortion is systematic and is sometimes accompanied by ill-treatment.

What are your recommendations?

We would like the CAT to tackle an issue that the Special Rapporteur on Torture has also highlighted: to what extent is a State like Niger, which adopts measures within its territory, responsible for the consequences outside of its borders? The majority of actors who enslave and torture these migrants are non-state actors who do not necessarily reside in Niger, but who have come to the scene because Niger has adopted a law criticised by local civil society. The Rapporteur has also asked about the responsibility of European States in what is happening in the Mediterranean and on African shores. Indeed, I note that the European mission in Niamey claims it has integrated human rights into its funding, but the reality on the ground is that this has only yielded minor results (the same as in the case of justice or prison reform). This is one of the things we need to put forward in our advocacy work. Another recommendation is related to the responsibility of the State of Niger: namely the need to train the security forces so that they stop committing abuses. In fact, the country does not yet have a law against torture, only a draft bill.

Finally, a reflection is needed in the sub-region, where the consequences of this law are spreading: how can such legislation coexist with a Protocol that allows people to move freely? How can this tension be prevented from making already vulnerable migrants even more vulnerable?

To find out more, read civil society’s alternative report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture - Anti-migration policies and laws in Niger: A gateway to torture and ill-treatment?

[1] A maximum of 500 Euros.

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