Faces are covered with turbans to protect themselves from the sun and sand, and fingers clutched to crude wooden sticks to avoid a fatal fall from the vehicles that cut through the desert. Just before leaving for Libya, dozens of migrants were crammed into the back of pick-ups gathered at the main bus station in Agadez, a city in northern Niger.

“They are packed like sardines,” recognizes Aboubacar Halilou, a smuggler visiting the scene. “But that’s our job, we have to get people through,” he says. Agadez, nicknamed the “gateway to the desert,” has been reviving the migration business since military authorities in November repealed a 2015 law criminalizing migrant smuggling.

Turbans, water sachets, cigarettes… Street vendors crowd around the vehicles for the last purchases before a long and dangerous journey across the Sahara. Latecomers are busy paying for their tickets and presenting their travel documents to the police. The crews thus registered join a weekly military convoy which heads north, a guarantee of relative security.

The repeal at the end of November of the 2015 law, controversial and unpopular in the country, is supposed to facilitate the travel of migrants to the Maghreb and Europe, but also to revitalize the economy of a region plagued by high crime. “People applauded this repeal,” rejoices Aboubacar Halilou. The smugglers who were in prison have already been released and are returning to work, because it is a very lucrative activity. »

Node of all traffic

But distrust persists and most drivers avoid interviews. An unknown number of carriers continue to use clandestine routes, ignoring the risks. Transporters “have become accustomed to circumventing” and “do not yet trust the system,” explains Mohamed Anacko, president of the Agadez regional council.

The alleys of the Netherlands district, where migrants embark in convoys, are full of pick-ups without plates with worn bodies, the distinctive team of smugglers and smugglers who thrive in this vast desert region known to be a hub for drug trafficking. trans-Saharan weapons and drugs. Clandestine convoys leave at night, avoiding the bus station and administrative formalities.

In this neighborhood, “loading is done in the open air, in the streets. We do not know who the driver is, who the passengers are, what origin they are from, nor their destination,” laments Azizou Chehou, coordinator of the NGO Alarme Phone Sahara, which rescues migrants lost in the desert.

The associations hope that the repeal will help regulate the sector and thus ensure the safety of would-be travelers, like Yousssouf Sakho, who waits for the day of departure in a “ghetto”, discreet houses where smugglers house their clients. This Ivorian national gave his phone and 300,000 CFA francs (around 450 euros) to his smuggler to go to Libya. “You can’t have 100% confidence in the carrier,” he admits.

“Former Rebels”

Some migrants discover upon arrival that the money paid has not been given to the driver and they are detained until their debt is paid. And drivers who use clandestine routes do not hesitate to abandon their passengers in the desert if they are chased by bandits or the police. “We need to go to these people to tell them that we need to return to formality and avoid bypass routes,” assures Mohamed Anacko.

But the task promises to be difficult after nine years of forced clandestinity, in a region marked by several rebellions and where the porosity of the borders encourages fraud. “The majority of people who work in migration are former rebels,” underlines Bachir Amma, president of a smugglers’ association. Deprived of their income by the 2015 law, a significant portion of them have turned to other trafficking or armed robbery. “For us, it’s not trafficking, the migrant pays for his ticket. We make roadmaps, we work like any travel agency,” says Mr. Amma.

The 2015 law made Niger a strategic partner in the migration policy of the European Union (EU), which is struggling to contain flows in a Libya ravaged by civil war. The EU was the main financier of retraining projects for migration stakeholders in the Agadez region, with results considered insignificant.

But after the coup of July 26, 2023, the EU suspended its cooperation in Niger. The ruling military denounced a law adopted “under the influence of certain foreign powers” ​​to justify its repeal, widely welcomed by the inhabitants of Agadez. “The authorities have seen the international community turn its back on them. (…) Niger was a sort of valve for migratory flows, so we had to reopen the valve,” said Abdourahamane Touaroua, mayor of Agadez. He maintains that departures from his city have “tripled” since the repeal, but carriers consider the recovery still timid and believe that the previous level will quickly be reached.