Migrants from Niger wait before they are deported by Libyan authorities in Misrata, Libya. Photo by: REUTERS / Ayman al-Sahili

A 2-year old boy picks his way through the Red Cross hygiene kit. He sniffs the soap and smiles, takes out the mosquito net, the towel, the washing power and finally takes out the bucket and puts it on his head.

He was born in Guinea-Bissau, but now lives in a tiny ghetto of hanging sheets and rubble in Niamey, Niger. Forty people live in his community. There is no power or water, food is scarce, and they sleep four or five to a mattress. Today, the landlady wants her rent, but nobody has any money to pay. They’ll soon go out and look for ways to scrape enough together for an evening meal.

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The little boy’s mother sits quietly beside a brick wall in the corner. We don’t ask, but we know it’s common practice for the young women to feel compelled to engage in sex work to keep such communities afloat. These women are often abandoned when the group moves on. It’s a brutal life. Not the one they were expecting when they left home full of hope, often years before.

The boy’s community is half the size it was two years ago, and that is typical of such communities across Niger. In 2016, more than 330,000 people crossed the country to the borders of Libya and Algeria. In 2018, that number was down to around 100,000. This is not because people are no longer moving, but because facilitating the movement of migrants in Niger is now criminalized. Punishment is rigorously enforced. For the drivers, the vehicle owners, the smugglers, the risks now outweigh the rewards.

This crackdown is Europe enforcing its borders deep into Africa and — while it is slowing down arrivals into Europe — it’s also creating a new set of risks.  People are finding ever more hazardous routes. Smugglers are more willing to drop their passengers in the desert if they suspect a patrol is close. Just as death rates in the Mediterranean have risen to new highs, out of sight even more people are dying in the desert. Perhaps most critically, in the long run, is that closing-down migration trails destroys one economy but doesn’t create another.

In poverty-stricken Niger, 300,330 people passing through the country each year created a lot of business. Now the trail is drying up, what is left? Conflict to the west around Mali, conflict to the south around Lake Chad, conflict to the north in Libya, tribal fighting over diminishing resources to the east, an arid land becoming ever less hospitable as climate changes, the highest illiteracy and child mortality rates in the world, a population soaring with an average of seven children per mother. Niger is a country that will need a Marshall Plan of support if it is to tackle the cumulative effects of climate change, poverty, and proximity to conflict.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of migrants who are stuck en route in Niger are in a vulnerable limbo. Those who decide to return home can seek assistance from the International Organization for Migration. Those who seek asylum where they are can turn to UNHCR. But those who feel that they can’t go back — because of lingering hope, ongoing poverty or conflict at home, or because they feel too changed and broken to go back — have no one to turn to. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement provides hygiene kits and basic medical support here, and in multiple countries along these trails, but there is no system of referral for more serious illnesses. Nor are there adequate protection options for the women and children who are sold and used to raise money to pay rent or fund onward journeys.

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Assistance is hard to organize because so much about supporting migrants and refugees is seen as political. One man in a ghetto showed me the little room he lived in with his wife and two children. He pulled up the mattress to show its ripped foam that was resting on bricks and logs of wood. Not surprisingly, he wanted a new one. But from the perspective of policymakers across Europe is providing a mattress a simple act of humanity or an act that perpetuates tolerance to stay, and thereby deters the difficult decision to return home? And is the mattress, therefore, a nonneutral intervention that influences the migration process in favor of onward movement? Aid agencies are faced with these difficulties whenever trying to implement interventions that make people on the move safer.

Let’s be clear: these are not easy questions. However, we believe that protecting human life and dignity must be at the core of any answer. Which is why we were pleased that the Global Compact for Migration was adopted last year, because it gives some emphasis to the safety and protection of migrants and refugees. That, at least, gives a common framework and language we can use to have these difficult discussions.

As is often the case though, it is local communities that show the simple acts of humanity first and most. When a Niamey-based community leader, Mohammed Fye, was showing me around his home and local mosque that he opens for migrants, I asked him why he helps people he doesn’t know. He shrugged his shoulders and replied: ‘because I know what it means to be a stranger.’

About the author

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    Alexander Matheou

    Alexander Matheou is the executive director of international for the British Red Cross. He has worked in the humanitarian sector for 20 years and has experience of working in the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. His major areas of thematic experience include disaster management, risk reduction, good donorship practices, and aid effectiveness.