The shy smile of the Cameroonian Giselle, 33, hides a very deep wound. Sitting in an armchair at the Catholic mission in Niamey, she takes a deep breath before beginning to speak. “I don’t know how many men raped me, when something like this happens to you, you lose count,” he says. He fled the war in his country to fall into the hands of human traffickers in Libya. “They sold me to a Gambian who I worked for for two years. It was her sexual object, she couldn’t leave the house alone, I don’t know what city she was in. Twice a week her brother came to get me and he also abused me. I thought about committing suicide, but the memory of my children saved me ”.
Niger, a must for thousands of African migrants heading to Europe, is abuzz with stories like this one. From Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea or the Gulf of Guinea all roads converge in this country before continuing to Libya or Algeria and the Mediterranean. Ivorian Frederick Tieffing runs a local food restaurant with his wife. He arrived a decade ago fleeing another war, but after five years of waiting for political asylum, he was eventually recommended to return home. “The United Nations agencies are overwhelmed, they cannot manage the flow of people arriving,” says Tieffing.
On a soccer field attached to the Seyni Kountché stadium in the Nigerian capital, young Sudanese from the Darfur region play a game against Nigerians and expatriates working in various humanitarian organizations. It is one of the few times when they are able to leave the Hamdallaye refugee camp, where some have waited four years for a transfer that never arrives and try to make the most of it. They were brought to Niger from Libya with the promise of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to be relocated to developed countries, but they are beginning to get fed up.
Almost every week a protest breaks out in the camp itself, in front of the UNHCR headquarters or in distant Agadez, where thousands of refugees are growing impatient. In 2018, the then High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the European Union (EU), Federica Mogherini, announced a rapid resettlement of the refugees transferred to Niger, but the situation of blockade is evident. The Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) began to function in 2017, but of the 6,351 places promised, only 2,729 transfers have been made from this country.
In 2015, Niger passed a tough national law against human smuggling that criminalized migration and led to a progressive tightening of measures against migrants and a closure of borders, especially with Algeria and Libya. In exchange for its collaboration in migratory control, the EU has notably increased the amount of aid for development in this African country, reaching 1,200 million euros between 2014 and 2020. The trust fund to combat clandestine immigration, also approved in 2015, it is one of the EU tools that channels this aid.
The measures taken to curb the covid-19 pandemic made matters worse: refugee movements slowed to the extreme and borders were further closed. The Italian religious Mauro Armanino has lived in Niamey for ten years. “The stories of these migrants are a revealing sign of our system, a mirror of our society. The West bears a great responsibility for what happens to them and relies on local complicities. These people have suffered enormous violence and we offer them asylum and we say that they will be able to continue their journey, but it does not happen because rich countries do not give the green light ”, he assures.
Despite all the controls, the Libyan route is experiencing an upturn in departures to Europe. As of June this year, 10,711 people were intercepted by patrol boats in the Mediterranean, just a thousand less than in all of 2020, according to IOM data. “They cannot stop it, it will be more expensive or dangerous, but it is unstoppable,” concludes Armanino.
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