More than 100,000 migrants pass through Agadez in Niger every year as they struggle to reach Europe. Some pass through it a second time - on the return journey back to their homeland.
A year ago, 20-year-old John Silva decided to leave his homeland of Gambia. As a young fisherman, he saw no chance to get ahead in life and make something of himself. So he headed for Europe.
The journey ended abruptly in the Libyan capital Tripoli when the police arrested him and put him in jail for three months. He had to phone his family and ask them to send some money before the Libyans would release him. The family had already clubbed together to give him some money before he left.
Silva decided he had had enough. "I want to go back to Gambia and work as a fisherman again," he said.
Traumatized and desperate
For the last two weeks, Silva has been living in the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Welcome Center in Agadez, Niger, where some 600 migrants are waiting to be repatriated. "They want to return home urgently and we have to take care of the logistics as quickly as possible," said IOM program coordinator Marina Schramm.
That doesn't only mean getting hold of tickets, but also new travel documentation from embassies. Like Silva, many of the migrants lost their documents en route. Obtaining new documentation is a wearisome process and tries the patience of the migrants whose plans for a new life in a foreign country are now definitely over. Quarrels between camp inmates are frequent. They are "traumatized and desperate," Schramm said.
Sitting next to John Silva is his Gambian friend Musa Colley. He stares at the ground, just listening. All of a sudden, he cries out: "The blacks are dying in the Libyan jails. The Libyans hate the blacks." He, too, was incarcerated for three months and was robbed and beaten up several times. Colley had left for Europe in order to support his mother in Gambia. Languishing in a Libyan jail, he was forced to beg for money from her for his release.
Terror, torture, exploitation and blackmail
It was stories like these that German development minister Gerd Müller heard during his visit to Agadez.. "Terror, torture, exploitation and blackmail. Conditions in Libya are dire," the minister said. That was why Germany was supporting the work of the IOM in Agadez in order to help migrants restore some of their dignity.
Müller wants to find out why so many young people are leaving their countries of origin and how they can be persuaded not to emigrate. Niger is a point of transit for migrants from West Africa, more than 100,000 pass through Agadez, the largest city in central Niger, every year. The number of irregular migrants leaving Niger itself is minuscule. In the first five months of 2015, Germany deported just seven Nigeriens. Altogether, there are just under 1,200 Nigeriens in Germany, 250 of whom face deportation.
There are many people in Agadez for whom the stream of migrants in transit is a lucrative source of business. They are the hoteliers, the owners of restaurants or money transfer services and, of course, the people smugglers and transport firms. "Young people work in the people smuggling trade because they have no alternative," Nigerien Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yacouba told DW. "There used to be tourism in Agadez. That was where those who now work as people smugglers used to earn their living," he said.
Tourism and people smuggling are generally not compatible. That's why the government in the capital Niamey wants to stop the flow of migrants through the country, even though this may well annoy many people in Agadez. It's an open secret in the city that if the migrants were to disappear then so too would a profitable branch of the local economy. Tourism, which would first need to be rebuilt, could not make up for the shortfall overnight.
In a recent address to the nation, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou announced for the first time that he was going to crack down on the people smugglers. The German development minister said he did not doubt the seriousness of the Nigerien government's intentions to curb irregular migration. Issoufou is fully aware of the status his country enjoys in Europe. Niger is considered a strong and stable partner, an ally in the fight against terrorism. The country is surrounded by some of Africa's trouble spots - Libya, Mali and Nigeria. Issoufou regards Europe as being under pressure to contain migration and has drawn up a plan to do just that. In exchange, he is asking for 650 million euros ($726 million). During his visit Müller promised him at least an additional 15 million euros.
John Silva and Musa Colley are given a few euros for bus tickets back to Gambia. Despite the frustration he must be feeling, Silva tells us "I am not disappointed with the Europeans. I like the way they treat people." In a few weeks, he will be back in his home country which is governed by dictator Yahya Jammeh. In Gambia, torture, detention of political opponents, and extra-judicial killings are part of everyday life. On the return journey, Silva will pass buses travelling in the other direction containing migrants who will also try to get to Europe.