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Niger and the new frontiers of EU border externalisation: Curbing irregular migration through IOM’s (in)voluntary repatriation?


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Billboard at the entrance of the Reception and Transit Center for Migrants, in Arlit, Northern Niger. Picture by NigerTZai on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The rise of a European frontier and the making of a trapped migration state


The EU’s recent interest in Niger arises from the reconfiguration of the country in the wider dynamics of human mobility in the West African and Sahel region. Since the early 2000s, Niger has assumed a crucial role as a transit hub in the trans-Saharan route linking West and Central Africa to North Africa and Europe. 


Over the last ten years, EU pressure on the Nigerien government to crack down on irregular migration and human smuggling brought about increased cooperation to improve migration control and border management and resulted in the adoption of the law 36/2015. The law criminalised smugglers, increased prison sentences and monetary fines for transporters (including the seizure of their vehicles and properties), and allowed for the detention of migrants subjected to illicit smuggling, without clarifying the grounds for such detention. Numerous concerns have been raised on the effects of this policy, most notably on mobility rights, regional cohesion, and human security on migratory routes; according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, the implementation of the law has resulted ‘in a de facto ban of all travel north of Agadez (…) in violation of the freedom of movement of ECOWAS nationals’ and in the criminalisation ‘of all migration upwards, pushing them into hiding, which renders them more vulnerable to abuse and human rights violations’. Even if traditional routes towards Libya and Algeria have recorded an impressive decline in official numbers, new alternative routes have been developed. These routes are much more expensive, longer and riskier, and fewer ‘professionalised’ smugglers operate under the higher pressure of being arrested. At the same time, Niger has also come to host an increasing number of forcibly displaced people and refugees from Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso because of the jihadist conflicts, as well as thousands of forcibly returned migrants/asylum seekers from Libya and Algeria as a result of insecurity and repressive migration policies.


Within just a few years, Niger has transformed from an ‘onwards transit migration hub’ into a ‘trapped migration state’, and paved the ground for an externalisation of migration management and humanitarian aid, through UNHCR and IOM. 


The making of a backward migration hub via IOM


Drawing on extensive fieldwork including qualitative interviews with UN officials, civil society organisations, transit/trapped/forced-returned/undocumented migrants, in the following section we critically focus on the role of IOM in further accelerating the transformation of Niger from a ‘trapped migration state’ into a ‘backward transit migration hub’, via Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programs. 


According to the IOM, the AVRR is ‘an indispensable part of a comprehensive approach to migration management aiming at orderly and humane return and reintegration of migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and wish to return voluntarily to their countries of origin’. The AVRR program in Niger was launched in 2015 and is currently co-funded by the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in the frame of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. The AVRR provides for the return journey and a (small) reintegration project in the country of origin with an in-kind contribution of 300 dollars. 


However, according to some activists, through such ‘humanitarian’ mechanisms the IOM is encouraging return in order to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. Within a few years, Niger has become the top host country in the world in terms of AVRR: the number of forced return and transit African migrants repatriated through this programme increased dramatically in recent years, from 1,322 in 2015 to 16,319 in 2019. Many civil society organisations cast doubts on the true aim of AVRR and on the way the programme is managed, and questions arise as to the genuine voluntary nature of such returns. Deportees from Algeria – the great majority of AVRR participants – are left by Algerian authorities in the middle of the desert and are forced to walk 20 km at night until they reach the Nigerien border, where they are ‘rescued’ by the IOM. An activist from Alarm Phone Sahara argues that, there, they have ‘no choice but to accept the AVRR program since it is the only way to access the assistance [food, shelter, medical aid] provided by the Agency in its transit centres’. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has also reported that assistance in the centres is conditional upon signing up for AVRR, and that ‘no other real alternative is provided for those who do not want to sign up for it, including those who are in vulnerable situations and have been victims of multiple human rights violations’. Concerns are rising about the lack of human-rights-based individual assessments, as very few are referred for asylum or refugee status determination. During our fieldwork, we also found several undocumented migrants intercepted by the police forces while transiting in Niger in IOM’s transit centre in Niamey. Additionally, there was an agreement made between the Ministry of the Interior and the UN Agency regarding (in)voluntary return, which authorises police forces to direct irregular migrants to the IOM; assisted repatriation is therefore used as an alternative to the detention and expulsion provided for by the Niger law.


While the EU-IOM partnership is emblematic of the link between humanitarian discourse and an agenda of migration control, the overall ‘official’ objective of the AVRR (the reintegration in the country of origin) is not materialising, as most of those repatriated from Niger seem to leave their country again after a short period of time and try to reach Algeria, Libya and eventually Europe many more times. Indeed, repatriated migrants have adopted several strategies of resistance and survival; many use the IOM channel strategically to finance the return journey to their country of origin and then leave again while others try to take advantage of AVRR to reach alternative destinations. Even though migrants might get caught, be repatriated or deported, they still find ways to avoid border and internal controls. They subvert and use the aid offered by IOM to their advantage, they reinvent themselves in the context of ‘entrapment’, and they keep on the move. Migrants therefore appear as active, creative and aware actors, able to challenge, circumvent and undermine mobility regimes.

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Fabio de Blasis

Fabio De Blasis holds a PhD in Global and International Studies from the University of Bologna. He works for an Italian NGO as a researcher and practitioner. He carried out extensive fieldwork on rural transformation and development, labour and contemporary migration in Sub-Saharan Africa, with research experience in Tanzania, Senegal, Eritrea, and Niger.


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Silvia Pitzalis

Silvia Pitzalis holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Bologna. She is now a research fellow at the University of Urbino, Carlo Bo. Since 2009 she has been carrying out research on disasters and migration in Italy (Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Umbria) and abroad (Sri Lanka, Niger, Senegal). Her main interests concern the management of emergencies and crises, migration policies and forms of resistance.


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