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As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for sub-Saharan Africans following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
At first, the Sudanese filtered out of the migrant ghettos and across the desert by the handful. It was December 2017 in the city of Agadez, Niger when the first group approached UNHCR, asking for protection. The UN’s refugee agency had spent the past couple of months building up its presence in the area, but the arrival of the Sudanese was not what it expected.
A sprawling collection of walled compounds and dusty, rutted streets in the heart of the Sahara, Agadez has long been a gateway between West and North Africa. For most of its history, the travellers passing through have been caravanning traders and people moving within the African continent in search of work. But as Libya descended into chaos following the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, an unregulated route to Europe opened up from Libyan shores – and 2,000 kilometers to the south, hundreds of thousands of West Africans flocked to Agadez to join convoys of pickup trucks setting out across the desert towards the Libyan coast.
With its expanded presence in the city, UNHCR anticipated identifying asylum cases among people following this route before they started the dangerous journey into Libya and across the sea. But the arrival of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: instead of heading north towards Europe, this group of refugees and asylum seekers was travelling south from Libya in search of protection. And, once the first group arrived, more kept coming – by the dozens – until there were around 2,000 Sudanese asylum seekers in Agadez.
What prompted the Sudanese to turn to the south was probably a confluence of factors: a desire to escape conflict and the abuses committed by militias and smugglers; European policies that have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year; and rumours of aid and protection for asylum seekers in Niger, and maybe – just maybe – the chance of a legal way to reach Europe.
The fact that the Sudanese were compelled to venture to Agadez at all highlights a broader truth: the international refugee protection system has failed in its response to long-term displacement. The tense reception of the Sudanese by Nigerien authorities – ultimately resulting in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya – speaks to the consequences of that failure.
The long road to Agadez
Adam and his wife had just found out they were expecting a child. It was December 2015 and the young couple was at a hospital in Amman, Jordan for a routine check-up. On their way out, a police officer stopped Adam’s wife, asking for her ID.
As Sudanese refugees from Darfur, they had a document from UNHCR. Adam still carries it with him, now deeply creased and slightly torn. It has colour photos of him and his wife and two blue UNHCR stamps. One section, written in Arabic and English, states that the holder of the paper should be “protected from forcible return to a country where he would face threats to his life or freedom”.
But that night, the document and their status didn’t matter. “They took us from the hospital to the airport and from the airport to Sudan,” Adam said in Agadez in March. “I have no idea why.”
The Jordanian government deported hundreds of refugees back to Sudan that month. Most of them – like Adam – were from Darfur and had arrived in Jordan after paying smugglers to get them medical visas, exploiting a loophole that allowed them to arrive in the country and then apply for asylum.
Arriving at the airport in Khartoum, Adam was terrified. Darfur has been ravaged by conflict since 2003, and, in 2005, when Adam was 19, he had been forced to flee his village because of fighting between rebel groups and the Sudanese government. Despite living in a camp for displaced people, he managed to get a scholarship to study law at a university close to the Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, but faced discrimination and watched as other Darfuri students were attacked by pro-government students.
Now back, he was afraid of what would happen if the government caught him after he had fled and applied for asylum. “From the airport, you want to escape,” Adam said. “You just want to go because maybe they’ll take you and kill you or torture you.”
With only the clothes on their backs and money borrowed from friends, Adam and his wife made their way from Sudan to Chad and then crossed the border into Libya in January 2016. Initially, the plan was to cross the sea to Europe, but first Adam needed to work to save up enough money.
Even when he found employment, life in Libya was not stable. There was fighting between militias, jockeying for power and access to revenue from oil wells and smuggling routes, and sub-Saharan Africans were specifically targeted for petty crime, kidnapping, and extortion. By February this year, Adam was fed up. “The situation wasn’t safe,” he said. He feared for his wife and their young daughter and had heard that Niger was safe and that he could enter without a passport. “I wanted security,” Adam added. “After, I thought I’d see.”
No one cares about Darfur
Adam’s route was more circuitous than most, but there was a common element linking the stories of all the Sudanese who ended up in Agadez: they were on the move because the system that existed to take care of them after they were displaced had failed.
Fighting in Darfur, starting in 2003, drove nearly half of the six million people living there to flee their homes. Last year, the UN estimated that 2.1 million people were still displaced within the region, and around 325,000 were living as refugees in neighbouring Chad.
Despite a recent decline in fighting, a 2017 report from the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan stated that the presence of armed militiamen around camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) continued to pose a security concern and that physical assault, rape, and robbery routinely occurred within them.
The security situation for refugees in Chad is better, but people there are suffering from another problem: the outside world stopped caring about Darfur.
For years, the conflict had celebrity status bolstered by international campaigns accusing the Sudanese government of genocide. But now, Darfur has slipped almost entirely from the radar, and funding for humanitarian programmes has diminished with the conflict’s visibility. In 2014, the World Food Programme was forced to cut food rations for Darfuri refugees in Chad by 50 percent due to lack of funding. “There is no more interest for this crisis, so there is no more money,” said Jérôme Tubiana, an independent researcher focusing on Sudan.
Fifteen years on, there’s still no resolution in Darfur paving the way for large numbers of people to return home. Instead, the menace of violence, food shortages, lack of educational opportunities, and economic necessity are pushing people to search on their own for solutions the international community hasn’t been able to provide. “The people who move… they really lost hope in the international community,” said Tubiana.“Very often, Libya or Europe appears the only solution.”
The Sudanese who ended up in Agadez were mostly young and middle-aged men who had left the IDP camps in Darfur and the refugee camps in Chad. Many were already registered with UNHCR. Some had been in Niger before, working in gold mines in remote parts of the desert. But most had gone to Libya searching for work so they could send remittances back to their families or to try to cross the sea to Europe.
Along the way “they fell prey to human traffickers and ended up in slavery situations – being forced to work – beaten, not paid,” explained UNHCR’s special representative for the Central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel, who visited Agadez in April.
Facing these abuses, with the route to Europe constricted and not wanting, or being able, to go back to the camps in Darfur or Chad, the Sudanese began heading to Agadez.
“Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… protection and safety?” Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s head of mission in Niger, asked rhetorically. “No other corridor than Niger.”
Mercenaries and criminals
The arrival of the Sudanese in Agadez in December coincided with the beginning of an emergency programme for refugees stranded in Libyan detention centres that saw people evacuated to Niger to await resettlement in Europe. Early press reports suggested that the programme, run by UNHCR, was creating a pull factor for the Sudanese. But their arrival in Agadez appears to have been motivated by less concrete information.
“I heard that in Niger there are laws and security,” Hashim, a 58-year-old who fled Libya after a militia attacked the town where he was staying, told IRIN in March. Others mentioned hearing various rumours, but nobody specifically said they’d come because they expected to be resettled. Instead, they were drawn by the idea there might be aid in a place safer than Libya, and the possibility, if distant, of a different outcome than they got in Sudan or Chad.
But the government of Niger viewed the arrival of the Sudanese differently. “We know that these people are fighters, soldiers, and they came here because now they expect to go to Europe,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s minister of interior, told IRIN.
While there are Sudanese fighting as mercenaries in southern Libya for various militias, Tubiana, the Sudan expert, said the government’s claim was baseless: “These people came to Niger as civilians without weapons. Whether they have been mercenaries or rebels or not, it doesn’t matter. As soon as they are disarmed, they are not in Niger to fight.”
At the local level, there were also tensions. Aklou Sidi Sidi, vice president of the Agadez Regional Council, blamed the Sudanese for an uptick in crime and said their presence was straining the already overburdened town. “The city of Agadez is not what it used to be,” he said. “Now, when you walk around, you only see foreigners.”
As dusk fell after evening prayer on 2 May, a large group of Sudanese were leaving a mosque close to the UNHCR shelters in Agadez where they were housed. As they walked back, Nigerien police swept in, arresting around 160 people.
By that point, there were close to 2,000 Sudanese in the town. For months, there had been a stalemate between UNHCR, which was negotiating for space to process the Sudanese cases and look for solutions, and the Nigerien government, which wanted to send people back to Chad and Libya.
In the meantime, more Sudanese had arrived than there was space for in the UNHCR shelters, and people were spilling into the streets. Residents in the neighbourhood complained that some of the Sudanese were stealing fruit from gardens and going to the bathroom outdoors, and that they felt uncomfortable with the Sudanese men living in such close proximity to Nigerien women and girls. The escalation of those tensions appears to have triggered the arrests.
For five days, the arrested Sudanese were held in an open-air prison in Agadez. IRIN spoke to people inside by phone who said they were not given adequate food or water. And people outside said they were afraid that if they left the UNHCR shelters they too would be arrested.
Then, on 7 May, several large trucks rolled through the gates of the prison. The Sudanese inside were instructed to climb on board. Those who resisted were beaten, and a picture circulated later of a man bleeding from the top of his head with scrapes along the side of his face. In the chaos, several people managed to escape. But, in the end, 135 people were loaded onto the lorries, which set off in the direction of the Libyan border.
Four days later, IRIN reached the group that had been deported by phone. The wind whipped in the background of the call as the man on the other end explained that they were in the desert – in a no man’s land between the Nigerien and Libyan borders. Without much food or water, they had been dumped in one of the most extreme environments in the world and told by the Nigerien military that they had three days to figure out how to leave.
“We deported a group of criminals who had been part of the militias fighting in southern Libya for security reasons,” a source in Niger’s interior ministry told IRIN. “They had no status as political or humanitarian refugees.”
The deportation, however, was a clear violation of international law. “It is inhuman and unlawful to send migrants and refugees back to Libya, where they face shocking levels of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour,” Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an email.
“This violates the absolute prohibition under international law… against sending people to a place where they face a serious risk of threats to their lives and freedoms.”
In the aftermath of the deportation, UNHCR was able to establish what it referred to as a “tolerance space”, where the government of Niger agreed not to send any more people back across the border. But the damage was already done.
“It’s not possible for people to come from Libya anymore,” a Sudanese man in Agadez told IRIN by phone. “The Nigerien government took Sudanese refugees and abandoned them in another hell in the desert. No one is coming here.”
Instead, people were leaving. By the end of June, there were around 1,200 Sudanese still in Agadez. Some of those who left were making their way to Algeria or Morocco. Others had gone back to Libya to try to cross the sea to Europe. But finding a different outcome in those countries seems unlikely. Algeria has deported 13,000 sub-Saharan Africans in the past 14 months, leaving them in the desert and forcing them to walk 15 kilometres across its southern border into Niger, and it doesn’t appear the sea crossing to Europe will become more accessible again anytime soon.
UNHCR has plans to set up an open facility for the Sudanese still in Agadez, outside of the city, to reduce the tensions between them and their Nigerien hosts. The possibility of resettlement to Europe has been ruled out. Those who remain behind are enduring an all too familiar situation: just like in Darfur and Chad, they are waiting for an unknown solution that seems unlikely to materialise.
Globally, their situation isn’t unique. “In any country where there’s been long-standing refugee situations, it’s quite common to see that conditions, rather than improving as you would hope over time, they actually deteriorate,” said Jeff Crisp, a migration expert at the Refugees Studies Centre at Oxford University.
The result is people moving on their own to new places in the hope of finding more support and better opportunities to rebuild their lives. “The whole refugee protection system, which was really predicated on the idea that people would move from their country of origin to a neighbouring country and stay there until the time came when they could go back home, that really doesn’t apply anymore,” Crisp said.
The people who are dependent on that outdated system, refugees like Adam and his wife, and their young daughter who was born in Libya, are left in an excruciating limbo. “If you’re waiting, there has to be something you’re waiting for,” Adam said in March. If not, “maybe you’ll say to yourself you want to try the sea… Every day you think what will happen now that you’re here. You spend every day thinking this.”
Three months later, Adam is still in Agadez, and he’s no closer to having any answers. “It’s still the same situation,” he said.
Next in Destination Europe: Demoralised
The next instalment of Destination Europe moves to Libya, where Tom Westcott reports on an overwhelmed Libyan Coastguard complaining of systematic neglect. While the EU brags of reduced numbers of migrants and the successes of multi-million pound initiatives to curb migration, Libya’s overwhelmed maritime security forces are disempowered and demoralised. They are railing against NATO for stripping them of vital naval equipment in 2011 and accusing the EU of offering only “empty promises”, leaving them struggling alone with the migrant crisis.
Read the previous instalments in this special report: