West Africans risk all for a new life

Aminu Abubakar

7 minute read

KANO, Nigeria: Uche's real journey was yet to begin but he had already spent four days in the northern Nigerian city of Kano after travelling on public buses and potholed roads from Imo state in the southeast.

He planned to go to Agadez, a transit town on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in central Niger, take a truck to Sebha, in southwestern Libya, and from there to the capital Tripoli, and then to Italy or Spain.

But his contact, who was supposed to drive him and three women across Nigeria's northern border, was arrested on suspicion of people smuggling.

"His house had been under surveillance," the 38-year-old electrician told AFP in Kano's bustling Sabon Gari district.

"The movement of the three women in and out of the house heightened the suspicion of the security agents who raided the house."

Uche, a stocky man in faded jeans, white sneakers and a white and blue striped T-shirt, appeared unfazed by the setback.

"I'll hang around in Kano until I find another facilitator who can link me up with a contact in Agadez."


With its market, blocks of overcrowded flats, beer parlours and brothels, Sabon Gari is a chaotic place that is becoming a frequent target for raids against smugglers who transport human cargo to the Mediterranean Sea that laps Africa's northern shores.

Europe, though, is pushing back against undocumented economic migrants from west Africa, like Uche, or the young women trafficked to sell sex in its major cities.

Numbers are down on 2015, when more than a million irregular migrants and refugees, most of them fleeing Syria's brutal civil war, risked their lives at sea to reach Europe.

From January 1 to May 24 last year, 193,333 people crossed to Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain in rickety fishing boats and overloaded inflatable dinghies, the International Organization for Migration says.

This year, only 60,521 have made the journey in the same period.

But the central Mediterranean smuggling route from Libya is now the busiest after a 2016 deal with Turkey to tackle the Aegean route.

A total of 50,267 have made it to Italy, up from 36,184 last year, the IOM says.

The route has also become more deadly: 1,442 people have been lost at sea so far compared with 982 in the same period in 2016.

"There's no longer a 'migration season'," says Fathi al-Far, who runs a reception centre in the Libyan coastal town of Zawiya. "People are now leaving at any time, even in winter."


Africa has long viewed irregular migration as Europe's problem and acceptable as long as remittances flowed.

But Africa's leaders are increasingly speaking out, as Europe's diplomats and politicians try to stop the boats from coming.

There has been talk of deals with the nomadic tribes policing Libya's lawless desert frontiers and plans to build holding centres for Africans sent back after reaching Europe.

Nigeria has announced a crackdown on illegal immigration and people smuggling; Niger has threatened smugglers with 30 years in jail and raided "connection houses" in Agadez.

Some see a link with a European Union offer of 1.8 billion euros in economic development funding for countries that show they are tackling irregular migration.

For Richard Danziger, the IOM's regional director for west and central Africa, the "large shift in attitude and policies" among African governments has been significant.

"Now there's a real realisation that the human cost is not something that's acceptable, whether it's drowning in the Mediterranean or dying in the desert," he says.


Last year, 37,724 undocumented migrants registered in Italy and Greece were Nigerian, nearly three times more than the next biggest group from Guinea.

Uche's profile is typical: he wants a better life, away from an economy deep in recession and where decades of oil profits and corruption have benefited few.

The flow of migrants, undeterred by the arduous journey and risks involved, is unlikely to stop unless conflict, poverty and other root causes such as population pressures are addressed.

Many of those who end up in Agadez in Niger, either bound for Libya and dangerous sea crossings, or after aborted attempts to reach Europe, are physically exhausted, sick from malaria and hunger, and suffering psychological problems.

Law enforcement agencies see irregular migration and people smuggling as a security threat because of the increasing involvement of criminal networks, and the money at stake.

The EU law enforcement agency Europol has said criminal networks made between 3 and 6 billion euros from migrant smuggling in 2015.

But revenue dropped by nearly 2 billion euros in 2016 because of the drop in numbers of irregular migrants arriving in the EU and a fall in fees paid to smugglers.

The head of the EU's border and coastguard agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, believes communication is key to debunking the myths that smugglers tell migrants about a new life in Europe.

"Either you die in the Mediterranean or you arrive in Europe under extremely deplorable conditions," he tells AFP.

"It's not the El Dorado that the smugglers describe."

But despite the increased efforts, from border police to maritime patrols, there is concern that not enough is being done.

The sea crossing is now even seen as the least risky part of the journey given the number of EU vessels on patrol, which pick up migrants and take them to Europe to be processed.

Migrants are being sent back to their home countries from Libya as part of a more regular, assisted-return program but officials concede many of them will try again.

At the same time, there is recognition that where it exists, there is poor enforcement of anti-trafficking legislation and little deterrent in source countries.

Conviction rates are low and agencies such as Nigeria's National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons are under-funded and under-staffed.

Africa's priorities are often elsewhere.


Ahmad used to drive migrants in his truck in the searing heat across the dunes from Agadez to Sebha twice every month.

The 30 passengers each paid him 50,000 naira (about 150 euros).

"I have made good money from the business. I own a house and other possessions. But in recent times things have changed. The authorities have come down hard," he says.

Drivers now risk being spotted by aerial patrols, having their vehicle impounded and going to jail, he says.

But he maintains he has not done anything wrong. 

"We are just delivery men paid for our service," he says.

Others involved in smuggling along this route do it out of necessity in a desperately poor, remote region where there is little or no alternative employment.

The bribes paid to the military escorts of the convoys that leave Agadez, and the police and army checkpoints through the desert boost meagre or non-existent salaries.

In Libya, where law and order has broken down since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, former policemen have skippered migrant boats.


Security analysts who study the Sahel say people are just another commodity for those who have long been involved in smuggling drugs, weapons and other goods.

But while there is no clear evidence that extends to any of the violent extremists, there are fears about what may happen if people's only source of income is taken away.

Poverty is a major factor in radicalisation and Islamist groups operating in the region, such as Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, willingly accept the disaffected.

Above all, the biggest fight is against the determination of desperate people with nothing to lose.

"Maybe I'll die but it's better to try to cross (the desert) than to stay in the Gambia," says Ibrahim Kamara, recovering in Agadez after breaking his leg in a road accident on a previous attempt.

"I've got no job there and no wife because I've got no money," the 37-year- old adds.

For Uche, in Kano, the rewards are worth the risk.

"People keep saying it (the route) is dangerous but I'm ready to try my luck," he says.