From Agadez to Libya:
The business from the migrants’ desperation
"Give it to me-give it to me, you can’t take pictures!" A migrant-smuggler, big, tall and around 60 years old, throws himself fiercely towards the camera. After several attempts, he grabs the lens and tries to pull it off. "You think I'm a slave?”, he shouts with his hands still clinging to the camera. "Here in Niger we are free to go wherever we want, do you understand?". Suddenly, a Nigerian intervenes and tries to calm the situation, but he’s attacked by another smuggler who grabs him by the neck and throws him against his pick-up truck. A crowd of about 60 people, including 20 desperate migrants ready to go to Libya, watch the scene in amazement. All this is taking place in a hidden alley on the outskirts of Agadez, in northern Niger. It’s in these corners of hell that migrants come together to get onto a jeep, with the hope of reaching the Libyan border in only two days. Below is the luggage with water jerrycans; above, a crowded group of people. The system is a well oiled machine. For more than 15 years a network of traffickers take each person’s name and, when it’s time to leave, calls him or her one by one. "Generally, 4x4 and trucks prefer leaving on Monday", explains Amadou Kora, one of the so-called "facilitators", a resident of Agadez who helps migrants to choose the safest routes and contacts. "On Monday, in fact, the police is too busy to follow the hundreds of vehicles that leave towards the desert. But for some more legal vehicles – continues Amadou - there is also the possibility of following a military convoy that each week, on Monday and Saturday, drives between Agadez and the town of Dirkou. In short, everything is quite organised." Over the past two years, partly because of the pressure exerted by the international community, the traffickers have been however much more careful. Moreover, two weeks ago the Nigerien Parliament has approved unanimously a law against human trafficking, the first one of its kind in this region. "At least 4,000 migrants are crossing Agadez each week trying to reach North Africa and Europe,” state the estimates published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This law is based precisely on a United Nations’ protocol that, through its various agencies, is launching information campaigns against the illegality of this market and the risk of a connection with the Islamic terrorism networks. But the traffickers have adapted to the situation. Now, in fact, they act with much more discretion.
The migrants who are directed to the “ghettos” are hidden more towards the outskirts of the city; they organize the desperate "desert-caravans" especially in the evening when the sun begins to fade; and, above all, they do not want to be photographed while ensuring that their vehicles are ready to go. Their job is particularly dirty and, in some cases, quite profitable.
But often, the business of a "merchant of human beings" in Agadez starts much earlier, when groups of migrants arrive in the capital Niamey from several West and Central African countries and keep in touch by telephone with the person who will be waiting for them at the “door of the Sahara”. "With my brothers I arrived in Agadez two days ago and I slept in a place recommended by a resident of the city - says Samuel Njie, a Gambian who wants to return to Europe for the second time -. I'm leaving tomorrow and I hope to reach Italy in a few days." Samuel is 38 years old, strong and with an admirable conviction. He reached Sicily for the first time in 2006 and for nine years he has been throughout all of Europe, working mainly in France, Switzerland and Germany. Now, needing to earn more money, he decided to repeat the experience. "I'm not afraid, God is on my side, plus: I’m a warrior by nature”, he says while finding a shelter from a flying pile of rubbish caused by the sudden and aggressive whirlwinds typical of Agadez. As soon as I arrive in Milan I have friends from Gambia who are waiting for me and you will see that I will call you." In an area nearby, there is instead the ghetto of the Nigerians. A group of five young prostitutes, mainly from the southeast of the country, do their hair while waiting for customers. "These are for my son in Nigeria - says one of the young women while showing a pair of trousers just bought at the market -. I can’t go to Libya because I don’t have money, but I can’t even return to Nigeria empty-handed". In these huts made of clay and wooden planks, one of the prostitutes disappears with a client. A few minutes and she will be able to put away 1,500 francs (2 euros). It suffices to move a few hundred metres to run into a number of restaurants owned by other Nigerians. Emanuel is ready to leave tomorrow with one of the trucks along with other fellow travellers. While eating banku with tomato sauce, a kind of boiled dough very common in his country, he admits he wants to get to Algeria where he hopes to find work. "Inshalla, I will arrive safe and sound, and maybe I'll even go to Europe”, he says while looking up into the sky before diving back into his plate. Migrants who don’t make it are those who have not deserved God's help, that's all. But I deserve it." Most of those heading north believed to have God on their side and no one can stop them. But there are even those (hundreds each month) who are forced to go back. They want to get back home having been traumatised by the journey and the experience of a few months spent in Libya at the mercy of other traffickers.
"We were able to come back to Niger with the help of our compatriots," explain Issa and Surjao, two 25-year-old Senegalese, met in Agadez, outside the gate of the new reception centre run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and funded by the Italian Interior Ministry. "We had no work and we were just exploited for three months. Then we were told that the Red Cross can perhaps help us to go back home – the two young men keep saying with tears in their eyes –. We just want to see our families again".
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