Fears of new migrant wave as Niger decriminalises people trafficking

A crowd of migrants gather in Assamaka, Niger
A crowd of migrants gather in Assamaka, Niger - Stanislas Poyet / AFP
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Niger’s junta has decriminalised people trafficking in a major blow to EU efforts to stem illegal migration.

The move could lead to a sharp increase in the number of West African migrants reaching Europe, where arrivals are already at their highest level in years.

Niger occupies a key position on migration routes. To its north lie Tunisia and Libya, key launchpads for migrant boats aimed at reaching southern Europe. To its south are countries like Nigeria, Benin and Burkina Faso.

Each year, tens of thousands of migrants pass through Niger as they head for the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where they hope to pay smugglers to take them by boat to Italy, the nearest landfall in the EU.

Niger’s revocation of the law criminalising migrant smuggling will be retroactive, meaning that traffickers who were convicted and imprisoned will now be let out of jail.

The anti-trafficking law was introduced in 2015 by then-president Mahamadou Issoufou as part of an accord with the EU that was intended to curb the number of migrants being trafficked through the Sahel and on to Europe.

Niger was one of several African countries to benefit from a $1.9 billion (£1.5 billion) EU fund aimed at tackling the root causes of migration in 2015.

Military surveillance and controls were increased in the northern town of Agadez, the main transit point for sub-Saharan Africans seeking to head north, and smugglers’ trucks were confiscated.

But the law has now been overturned by Niger’s military government, which came to power in a coup in July that removed Mr Issoufou’s successor, Mohamed Bazoum, from office.

Its revocation is an indication the junta is flexing its muscles and seeking to establish its authority, in defiance of international pressure.

It will also play well with desert tribes who previously made a fortune trafficking sub-Saharan migrants through the landlocked country.

Anti-trafficking law ‘not in the interests of Niger’

The junta said in a statement that the old law “did not take into account the interests of Niger and its citizens”.

Traffickers who were imprisoned under the legislation would have their convictions “expunged”, it said.

Niger’s coup prompted concerns that Russia and its proxy mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, could exploit the situation and seek to carve out a greater role in the country.

Niger had been viewed as the last bastion of Western influence in the Sahel, a region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Wagner already has a strong presence in neighbouring Mali as well as in the Central African Republic. There have also been long-standing claims that Wagner and other Russian actors have encouraged migrants to leave Libya in order to destabilise Europe.

‘Huge risk’ of death

The European Commission said it was worried that the repeal of the anti-trafficking law would lead to more migrants making the journey towards Europe’s southern shores.

“I’m very concerned about the situation now, and there is a huge risk that this will cause new deaths in the desert,” said Ylva Johansson, the EU home affairs commissioner.

She said it “would also probably mean more people coming to Libya, for example, and then maybe also trying to cross the Mediterranean to the EU.”

So far this year, 152,000 migrants have reached Italy from the coast of North Africa, many of them sub-Saharan Africans from countries such as Guinea, Gambia, Nigeria and Senegal.

Ms Johansson said she “very much” regretted the decision by the leader of the Nigerien junta, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, to revoke the law.

The EU had had “very, very close co-operation” with Mr Bazoum’s ousted civilian government, she said.

The EU condemned the coup earlier this year which led to the elected leader being detained at his residence in the capital, Niamey.

Brussels suspended all security co-operation with Niger, a former French colony, as well as budgetary aid in the wake of Mr Bazoum’s removal from power.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.