War, violence, and persecution have forced millions of people to leave their homeland. The share of refugees worldwide is increasing each year. Currently, there are more than 70 million displaced people (refugees, internally displaced and stateless people) in the world. The majority of them stay in their homeland, a share of 85% lives in developing countries. Poverty, lacking economic prospects, hunger, natural catastrophes, growing populations and different impacts of climate change are other reasons that motivate people to leave their homes . Thousands of West Africans go into a journey across the Sahara desert every year to reach Europe. The route that goes from Ghana through Niger and Libya has become the most popular for Ghanaian ‘backdoor’ migrants. Many don’t know their destination for sure when they leave, and their fate is profoundly influenced by the economic and security situation they might face in Libya.
Niger and the Sahara Desert
Niger is a central country both of origin and transit for migrants traveling to North Africa and eventually Europe. The city of Agadez, traditionally a crossroad of trans-Saharian trade, has become a hub for immigration and a point of departure for immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa. The transit from Niger to Libya is very dangerous, as it involves crossing the Sahara desert and being exposed to heat, cold, possible dehydration and water, and food shortages. Other common dangers linked to this route are asphyxiation of passengers in overcrowded trucks, the abandonment of migrants in the desert by smugglers running away from police – which can also lead to death if assistance arrives too late – along with corruption, abuse, and violence from border officials, bandit attacks, robbery, imprisonment or rape.
The journey from Agadez to Libya wasn’t problematic in the region until 2015. Migrants were the primary source of income in Agadez and their transportation to Libya was regarded as normal, served as an important form of occupation in northern Niger and contributed to stability and economic development in that region. However, things changed when Niger, pressured by the EU, passed an ‘anti-smuggling law’ in 2015. According to Reuters, “The European Union said that only 1,500 migrants crossed Niger in November , down from 70,000 in May, crediting the change to a new partnership strategy it launched with Niger last year.”
Human smugglers can be now sent for 5 to 10 years in prison and fined up to 5 million CFA francs ($8,600). Functioning as a complex network, researchers broadly agree that smugglers have the capacity to adapt rapidly to enforced border controls and anti-smuggling policies. Migrant routes are also changing and diversifying, adapting to manifold challenges, such as stricter border controls, conflicts, environmental disasters or weather conditions, for instance. However, emerging migrant routes tend to become more dangerous than the preceding ones. Moreover, the movement of people within Africa is increasingly becoming more difficult and dangerous.
Migrant Deaths Worldwide 2014-2018
The European Union has signed since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 several migration pacts with African nations to stop migration flows, by strengthening borders and policing migratory routes. The EU has founded an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, through which it has invested billions of Euros in African countries to strengthen border control. For Ghanaians and other Western Africans transiting Niger to arrive in Libya and maybe Europe, going north of Agadez, even though Niger is an ECOWAS member, it has become hard. “Anyone who cannot prove they are Nigerien is considered a possible clandestine immigrant and may be sent back south, sometimes after a short time in prison.”
Europe’s Most Fortified Border is in Africa
Libya was a fairly safe place for migrants from Sub-Saharan countries under Qaddafi’s rule. Many spent some time there to work, earn money and send remittances back home. Even though Libya didn’t have an asylum law, political refugees could likewise find refuge and even support in the Libyan society, without necessarily having to travel further to Europe.
After Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, however, the situation changed for Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees. Libya has one of the worst freedom rankings in the world, according to Freedom House, with de-facto no government, autonomous militias, extremist groups, and criminal networks have proliferated in the country. Human rights are being violated and thousands of people have been displaced ever since due to ongoing violence.
In the report “More Than One Million Pains: Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys on the Central Mediterranean route to Italy”, published by the Women’s Refugee Commission, researcher Sarah Chynoweth gives insights on the impact different forms of violence and sexual abuse might have on unaccompanied boys that travel to Europe through Libya. A child protection officer describes it as follows:
The social entrepreneur and founder of the Green Africa Youth Organisation, Desmond Alugnoa, was eager to find professional success after finishing school. He shared with the younger generations in Ghana the same feelings of disorientation and unrest about his future. Many people approached him with promises of a better and easy to reach future in Europe. He questioned every offer systematically, asking himself what that person might want to win out of it. He informed himself, he researched, he talked with people. In the end, he decided not to emigrate to Europe through the backdoor, but to search for official channels and to become a social entrepreneur.