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Deportations: Africa's role in EU migration management

Martina Schwikowski
May 11, 2023

Algeria has been deporting African migrants to neighboring Niger for years. Authorities force thousands to cross the border through the desert to Assamaka, where the humanitarian situation reportedly is catastrophic.

Migrants seen on the back of a pick-up truck in the Niger
Algeria is sending thousands of African migrants back to Niger, unable to cope with a recent influxImage: Jerome Delay/AP/picture alliance

There's a sense of excitement at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria. In the arrivals hall, migrants are seen returning from Libya, where conditions for migrants are widely known to be atrocious.

One of them is Felicity; her enthusiasm is almost palpable:

"There is nothing better than home," the 20-year-old Nigerian national says upon arrival. "Now we are back and safe. No one can look down on us anymore. We are happy."

Felicity had embarked on her dangerous journey through the Saharan desert in September 2020 already, hoping to reach Europe at any cost. But like thousands of other people, she eventually got stuck in Libya, which for much of the past decade has become the main country of departure for migrants undertaking the expensive - and perilous -crossing to Europe.

Many, however, don't even get anywhere near there. In Libya, migrants are known to be brutally abused by criminal gangs, struggling to survive. The actual number of those who die under inhumane conditions of captivity, servitude or violence is unknown.

Felicity managed to get by with odd jobs for more than two years. But in the end, she says she just wanted to get away.

Shattered dreams and broken promises

In the past three years, according to the United Nations, a total of 13,000 Nigerians have voluntarily returned to their home country with the help of Nigerian government authorities and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Their dream of a better life in Europe has turned into a nightmare, forced to experience violence, abuse and racism in Libya.

Dozens of migrants seen on a crowded boat on the Mediterranean
Hundreds die in the Mediterranean Sea each year, never reaching European shoresImage: Ärzte ohne Grenzen/dpa/picture alliance

"The biggest challenge is the mental health of the migrants," says Victor Lutenco, IOM staff member at the transit center, where returnees are registered upon arrival. "In addition to material support, psychosocial assistance is our priority."

But these are the images that many people don't see or know when they engage in discussions about migration. The emphasis in such public debates is usually placed firmly on people on small rubber dinghies suffering shipwreck while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

However in truth, the majority of migration narratives featuring Africans actually take place on their own continent: according to the IOM, around 21 million Africans lived in another African country in 2020.

In comparison, the number of Africans living in other regions of the world stood at over 19.5 million the same year.

Reluctant return the desert

More than 70% of migratory movements within Africa take place within West Africa alone, according to the IOM. Many people search for better work opportunities. However, in recent years, irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe as well as between West and Central Africa has also increased significantly.

However, as migration patterns increase, so do deportations in many regions. Transit countries are increasingly overwhelmed with the influx of migrants. One of the leading countries carrying out mass deportations is Algeria.

Between January and the end of March 2023, the North African nation has sent more than 10,000 migrants back to the desert region along its border with Niger, reports the activist network Alarme Phone Sahara (APS), which advocates for migrants and refugees in the Sahel.

According to Moctar Dan Yaye, one of the founding members and Head of Communications and PR at APS, deportation activities to this no-man's land can be divided into two categories: official and unofficial ones.

In the so-called "official" deportations, the main nationals affected are Nigeriens; on the basis of an agreement between Niger and Algeria, Nigeriens are taken directly to the small border town of Assamaka, from where they are then transported to Arlit or Agadez by Nigerien authorities.

In contrast, "unofficial" transports involve people from West and Central Africa as well as from Middle Eastern or Asian countries.

"In Algeria, these people are usually arrested during raids," Yaye told  DW. He added that they normally are driven across the desert in trucks and then dropped off, often by the hundreds, at a place known as "Point Zero" in the no-man's land region on the Algerian-Nigerian border.

Death in the Nigerien desert

"After all the trauma they have suffered, they still have to walk to reach a village where they can get first aid," Yaye explained. Usually, he says, these are young people between the ages of 20 and 30, but there typically are a number of pregnant women, children or elderly also among them.

Not everyone makes it through the ordeal; some die and are left behind in the desert.

Migrants huddling together in the Saharan desert
Migrants from Niger and other countries cross the desert to reach Libya - but only few ever make it furtherImage: Jerome Delay/dpa/picture alliance

Human rights organization Medico International, a partner organization of Alarme Phone Sahara, says these deportation practices are "deplorable."

"People have to walk through the desert in scorching heat, without food and without enough drinking water," Kerem Schamberger, migration officer in public relations at Medico International, told DW.

Last year, he says, more than 24,000 people were deported across the Algerian border in what he refers to as "cloak and dagger operations." Among the deportees, he says, where many individuals who had been injured.

Meanwhile in the small border village of Assamaka, these mass deportations appear increasingly to be leading to a humanitarian crisis, which only is exacerbated by the fact that the local IOM reception center there has not been in a position to accept any new deportees for almost six months.

Human rights organization Doctors Without Border (MSF) described the situation in the town as "unprecedented," calling on the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) to step in and immediately offer protection to those who are finding themselves stranded there.

Right-wing elements to blame

Activist Dan Yaye blames the "rise of the far-right in the world" for the current trend: "There have been hateful racist speeches against migration all over Europe for some time now, be it in Italy, Spain, France or Germany," he told DW.

That right-wing wave, however, seems also to have reached Africa by now. According to Yaye, there are many young migrants from sub-Saharan Africa currently in Tunisia, who find themselves "trapped there because they are often harassed by the population and the authorities."

APS has appealed to the African Union to intervene and follow its own protocols to provide protection for migrants, but the calls didn't have an impact. 

Migrants protesting in Tunisia with banners saying that Tunisia is not a safe place for the,
Migrants say they do not feel safe in Tunisia, with racism notably on the rise Image: Hasan Mrad/Zumapress/dpa/IMAGESLIVE /picture alliance

In fact in recent months, racially motivated attacks on people from sub-Saharan Africa have been increasing in the North African country following a series of incendiary remarks about immigrants by Tunisian President Kais Saied.

EU policies echoing in the Sahel

Schamberger from Medico International says, however, that such deportations amount to an extension of the EU policy commonly described as "Fortress Europe" - the attempt of the European Union to shield itself from mass migration by keeping irregular migrants outside its external borders.

He highlights that there a law was passed in Niger in 2015 "under pressure from Europe" essentially criminalizing any migration to the north, automatically turning anyone aiding or abetting any given migrant into a supporter of irregular migration.

According to the wording of the law, anyone helping a migrant in exchange for money can be considered a smuggler.

"In concrete terms, this has also led to an increase in the death toll in the Sahara," Schamberger told DW, adding that such laws do not stop migration but rather result in people taking even more dangerous routes through the desert in a bid to avoid security checks.

According to Schamberger, the IOM is just as complicit as the EU in making sure migrants never make to their intended destinations at almost any cost: He regards the UN institution as merely a "border regime" that pretends to help migrants. In his view, voluntary return programs are a last resort dressed up as an alternative.

Schamberger thinks that between all these political actors, life is made so difficult for migrants that they see no other way out. But despite all the dangers and pitfalls of migration, people continue to seek a better future in Europe and beyond.

Nigerian returnee Felicity meanwhile has had to recalibrate her intentions and plans for the future. Following the trauma she suffered in Libya, she has decided to take matters into her own hands and empower herself by focusing on her education.

Felicity says she wants to go back to school - and stay in Nigeria.

Collaboration: Olisa Chukwumah (Lagos)

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

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