by Hannah Lichtenstein
There are some countries that are thrust into the global limelight, becoming the subject of great discussion and the bearers of intense responsibility, not through any action of their own but merely because of their geographic location. Take the famous case of Panama. The Central American country garnered a lot of attention for its potential as a connector between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After a lot of hubbub between the world’s superpowers, the Panama Canal was built just over a hundred years ago. Another example is Iran, the only country to border the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, giving it unique access to massive oil reserves.
Niger, while not to the degree of these other nations, has become increasingly aware of just what “location, location, location” can really mean. Dubbed by some as “Africa’s gateway to Europe,” Niger has become a key player in the ongoing European migrant crisis.
Niger’s geographic importance becomes clear when you look at a map. The West African country is a critical passageway to neighboring Libya, which migrants must cross to reach the Mediterranean Sea where they hope to begin the treacherous journey to Europe. Approximately 100,000 people from Sub-Saharan countries are estimated to pass through Niger each year with the goal of making it to Europe. Facing poverty, violence and other injustices, they leave in pursuit of a better quality of life.
However, in the past couple of years, the number of migrants who successfully make it to Europe has declined dramatically. Europe is, to put it mildly, not exactly rolling out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands who risk it all to land on its shores. The efforts to stop the influx has led European nations to make deals with and funnel a lot of money to specific countries that seem to play a key role in the passage. Niger, say hello to desperate, wealthy European countries.
The European Union pledged to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Niger to help in the project of deterring migrants. Much of this money goes to militarization, infrastructure, and the creation of new policies. Such efforts have taken the form of, for example, a contract with one of Niger’s big bus companies that ensures that migrants attempting to get to Libya are stopped and transported in the opposite direction.
The aid from the EU, in conjunction with a 2015 law that criminalized human trafficking in the country, has resulted in a dwindling number of migrants passing through “Africa’s gateway to Europe.”. Whereas some 5,000-7,000 migrants per week traveled from Niger to Libya a few years ago, that number is now estimated to to be around 1,000. Niger’s role in ameliorating what has often been deemed a migrant “crisis” has not gone unnoticed. The country has been applauded for its dedication and hailed as one of Europe’s “best allies.”
As the statistics come in, it’s quite clear that Europe has benefited from these new policies and partnerships, but what about Africa? It seems that EU money, much of it intended for job creation along these routes, would help poverty-stricken Nigeriens quite a bit. However, as the story often goes with foreign aid, it hasn’t helped in the ways people hoped it would. Money doesn’t always trickle down to those who need it most, particularly in vulnerable countries, instead it falls prey to mismanagement and corruption. What’s more, European migration was big business prior to the crackdown, and that income stream has been eliminated. For example, there were communities near the border, such as Dirkou, that provided services for migrants. Now, the migrants don’t pass through like they used to, and it seems the foreign aid has not been able to offset the economic losses incurred.
The issues don’t end there. With the military presence increased on the traditional paths to the border, determined migrants drive dangerous routes, through mines and miles away from water, to get to their final destination. Unsurprisingly, many do not make it and have to be rescued. Others die trying. Then you have those who made a living driving migrants to the border who have found themselves out of work. What do they do now? Many have resorted to criminal activity — smuggling and robbery — to make money.
Though ensuring migrants get back to their home country has been an explicit mission voiced by the Nigerien government, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and others, it doesn’t always happen. Instead, thousands of migrants end up stuck in Niger, a country with its own population pressures, fighting for jobs in an already-struggling economy.
With people coming in rapid waves by the thousands, carrying with them so many unknowns, putting strain on society and infrastructure, one can perhaps see where the EU is coming from by putting money towards addressing an obvious source of the problem. Once a situation becomes dire, that is the instinctual reaction. However, there’s always an urgent attempt to stop the bleeding when a bad situation unfolds in one’s own backyard. People start to care about crime, disease and a fight for resources when it starts to affect them personally.
Looking ahead, Europe’s money would be best spent on addressing the root causes of migration. Why do people want to get out of these parts of Africa so badly? Funding for education, crime prevention, and economic development is money that would go along way toward alleviating the problem. And those who think these issues don’t fall within Europe’s realm of responsibility should think again. A lot of the problems African countries grapple with are a direct result of European colonization. Europe’s haphazardous administration of these countries, their stoking of racial, tribal, and religious grievances, and their stripping of resources, followed by their essential abandonment in the 19th and 20th centuries have had long-lasting and devastating repercussions across the continent. In the end, EU money that addresses problems from a more systematic, proactive standpoint would ultimately redound to the benefit of Africa and Europe.
Claudet, Sophie. “Niger: Europe’s Migration Cop?” Euronews, Euronews, 26 Oct. 2018, www.euronews.com/2018/10/26/niger-europe-s-migration-cop.
Penney, Joe. “Europe Benefits by Bankrolling an Anti-Migrant Effort. Niger Pays a Price.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/world/africa/niger-migration-crisis.html.