The first time Ousmane Bah was abandoned in the desert, it was June 2017. Five of the people he was with died. He was 21 years old and had left his home in Guinea a couple of months earlier, after his father was killed in a flare-up of political violence. Ousmane was afraid the killers would come for him next, so he decided to try to escape to Europe, where, he said, “they respect the law and human rights”.
Guinea is part of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which has a visa-free travel arrangement for citizens of its 15 member countries. As Ousmane crossed borders on commercial buses, no one asked to see his passport or questioned him about where he was going. It was easy progress, that is until he reached the city of Agadez in Niger.
Agadez has long been a hub for regional migration. Following the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it became the gateway for people travelling from West Africa to Europe via Libya. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants began to arrive on European shores, the EU began searching for ways to stem the flow. On the route from West Africa, that effort focused on Agadez. Six months before Ousmane arrived in the city, the government of Niger had begun enforcing a law that criminalised the irregular movement of people to Libya.
The EU-backed crackdown on irregular migration has not so much stopped the movement of people from Niger to Libya as forced it underground. A recent report by the research initiative REACH found that, since the beginning of 2017, there has been a diversification of the routes that people take to arrive in Libya, in large part due to the restrictions introduced in Niger. “Key informants” cited in the study – who included law enforcement officials, local leaders, activists, smugglers, and humanitarian aid workers – reported that “they had not witnessed a decrease in arrivals of refugees and migrants from the southern borders.”