Early in the morning on 4 January, security forces carrying long, wooden sticks arrived outside the office of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in the city of Agadez, Niger: 600 or more asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan, were gathered in the street in front of the office.
Since mid-December, they had been staging a sit-in to protest what they said was UNHCR’s “complete neglect” of their living conditions and the slow processing and mishandling of their asylum cases.
By the end of the day, security forces had dispersed the sit-in, dozens of demonstrators were allegedly injured, more than 330 were arrested, and the camp set up to house asylum seekers outside the city was almost entirely burned to the ground.
The events were only the latest in the more than two-year saga of the Sudanese in Agadez – a story that has always been part of a bigger picture.
The arrival of the Sudanese to the long-time migration hub in northern Niger, beginning in November 2017, followed on the heels of European policies aimed at curbing the movement of people from West Africa to Libya and onward to Italy, as well as the initiation of a programme by the EU and UNHCR – the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) – to evacuate people from Libyan detention centres, bringing them to Niamey, Niger’s capital, to await resettlement to Europe.
Against this backdrop, some Sudanese in Libya, facing violence, rampant abuse, exploitation, and even slavery, turned south to escape, spurred on by rumours of aid and safety in Niger, and the vague possibility of a legal way to reach Europe. But authorities in Niger, itself focal point of EU efforts to stem migration in recent years, were not enthusiastic about the arrival of the Sudanese and worried that the presence of UNHCR in Agadez was acting as a “pull factor”, attracting people to the city from Libya.
UNHCR is in a complicated position in Niger, according to Johannes Claes, an independent consultant and migration researcher who has followed the situation in Agadez since 2017.
The organisation has had to navigate between allaying government fears of a “pull factor” while providing protection and services to the Sudanese, running the ETM – the “human face” of the EU’s otherwise harsh migration policies – and responding to a growing number of refugees and Nigeriens displaced by conflicts along the country’s borders. “It hasn’t been easy for them to manage this,” Claes said. “That is quite obvious.”
Underlying the entire situation is a global shortage of refugee resettlement spots. UNHCR projects that 1.4 million refugees are in need of resettlement this year out of a population of nearly 26 million refugees worldwide. Last year, around 63,000 refugees were resettled through UNHCR-facilitated programmes, down from a high of 126,000 in 2016.
“UNHCR everywhere is just overwhelmed by the numbers because they are completely dependent on slots allocated in Europe and North America, and those are really very, very few,” said Jérôme Tubiana, an independent researcher focusing on conflict and refugees in Sudan and Niger.
Global resonance, local grievance
Caught between restrictive EU migration policies and the global lack of resettlement spots, UNHCR’s struggle to provide services, protection, and long-term stability to asylum seekers and refugees has not been limited to Niger.
In the past year, asylum seekers and refugees have protested in front of UNHCR offices in Libya, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and African asylum seekers in particular, including many Sudanese from Darfur, have accused UNHCR of discrimination and neglect. “[The protest in Agadez] was part of… a global story of frustration and a feeling of being, really, not treated as victims of war or mass crimes,” Tubiana said.
Despite the global resonance, the trigger for the protest in Agadez appears to have been a local incident that took on symbolic significance as it spun through the rumour mill of a population that was already angry about the slow pace at which their asylum cases were being heard and desperate for information about their futures.
“The core of the problem is why the procedures are slow and why some people were informed… that their files had been lost,” a Sudanese asylum seeker in Agadez told TNH on 17 December, the day after around 600 people walked out of the camp where they were housed and set up the sit-in in front of the UNHCR office. “There is a complete lack of credibility… represented by the loss of the files,” the protesters said in a statement that circulated via text message.
“We know that these people are fighters, soldiers, and they came here because now they expect to go to Europe.”
UNHCR Niger confirmed that the government agency responsible for processing asylum requests had misplaced around five files several months earlier, but it said the files had been reconstituted and resubmitted for consideration. “From UNHCR’s side, we can strongly confirm that no registration files nor resettlement requests have been lost and that no one has to re-conduct interviews,” UNHCR Niger told TNH.
But by the time news about the files spread, the Sudanese had already been growing frustrated, disillusioned, and distrustful for quite some time, and UNHCR’s reassurances fell on deaf ears.
A shaky beginning
From the beginning, the position of the Sudanese in Agadez has rested on shaky ground.
Hundreds of thousands of West Africans, sharing a common language and cultural background with Nigeriens, have passed through the city en route to Libya over the years.
The Sudanese were the first group of outsiders to turn south from Libya in search of protection, and Nigerien authorities didn’t trust their motives. “We know that these people are fighters, soldiers, and they came here because now they expect to go to Europe,” Niger’s minister of interior, Mohamed Bazoum, told TNH in 2018.
But UNHCR has maintained that the Sudanese are not fighters. For the most part, they had been driven from their homes in Darfur by conflict and government-sponsored ethnic cleansing that began in the early 2000s. They had lived in camps for the displaced in Sudan or Chad before humanitarian funding ebbed or conflict followed them and they began criss-crossing the region in search of safety, stable living conditions, and better prospects for their futures. In the process, many had been tortured, trafficked, raped, or had witnessed and suffered various forms of violence.
At the peak in 2018, there were nearly 2,000 Sudanese in Agadez, and tensions with the local community simmered as they filled up limited UNHCR housing in the city and spilled into the streets. At the beginning of May, authorities arrested more than 100 of the Sudanese, trucked them to the Niger-Libya border, dropped them in the desert, and told them to leave.
The incident was a major violation of the international laws protecting asylum seekers, and in its aftermath, UNHCR, which had been caught off guard by the arrival of the Sudanese in the first place, scrambled to make sure it wouldn’t happen again and to carve out a space where the Sudanese and other asylum seekers would be safe.
‘It was a bit existential’
The government and UNHCR settled on a plan to open the camp – which UNHCR calls a humanitarian centre – 15 kilometres outside Agadez to de-escalate tensions, and the government eventually agreed to start hearing asylum claims from the Sudanese and others. But a message had already been sent: the number of Sudanese coming to Agadez slowed to a trickle and several hundred ended up returning to Libya or headed elsewhere on their own.
By last December, there were around 1,600 asylum seekers, mostly Sudanese, in Agadez, and 1,200 of them were housed at the humanitarian centre. According to UNHCR, 223 people had already received refugee status in Niger, and around 500 were set to have their cases heard in the coming months. Thirty-one of the most vulnerable had been transferred to Italy as part of a humanitarian corridor, and around 100 others were in line for refugee resettlement or other humanitarian programmes that would take them out of Niger.
“It’s not a humane situation.”
“It was slowly, slowly ongoing, but there was a process,” Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s head of office in Niger, told TNH. “Nothing was in the air or in… limbo.”
“We managed to stabilise a little bit a large group of people that for years were going from one place to another in [search] of protection,” Morelli added. “I think that was the success.”
But many of the Sudanese in Agadez saw the situation differently. The humanitarian centre was isolated and on the edge of the desert. In the summer, the weather was very hot and in the winter, very cold. There was little shade, and the insides of the tents boiled. Storms carrying billowing clouds of sand would blow out of the desert, blocking out visibility and blanketing everything in dust. Attempts to drill wells for water failed. “It’s not a humane situation,” one asylum seeker told TNH last April. “The way they treat us here they wouldn’t treat any person.”
“We saw… very high rates of mental illness, numerous suicide attempts, women miscarrying on a regular basis or having very, very… low-weight babies; people were wandering off into the middle of the desert due to mental illness or desperation,” a former UNHCR staff member, who worked for the organisation on and off for six years and spent eight months in Agadez, told TNH on condition of anonymity. “It was a bit existential.”
UNHCR partnered with organisations to provide psychological support and medical care to the asylum seekers. “[But] the level of service and the treatment that these people have been receiving… has been very low,” said Claes, the migration researcher. “It is very hard to service that camp. It is not an easy area to be operating, but it’s also not impossible,” he added.
Protest and dispersal
The low level of service, slow processing of asylum requests and lack of clear information about what was happening with people’s cases grated on the Sudanese.
“This is not the first time that people are expressing themselves as unhappy,” Claes said. “This was obviously the worst that we’ve seen so far, but it was not entirely unexpected that this would at some point get out of hand.”
When the sit-in began, UNHCR in Niger said the asylum seekers were pushing to be resettled to Europe. “Resettlement is a protection tool for the most vulnerable, not a right,” UNHCR Niger told TNH. “Most asylum seekers currently in Agadez are not among the most vulnerable refugees, and other more vulnerable cases will be privileged for resettlement.”
The claim that the protest was only about resettlement prompted the former UNHCR employee to speak out. “They keep rolling out resettlement as this kind of strawman to distract from the fact that these people have been neglected,” the former employee said. “They’ve been neglected because they’re not a priority for anybody.”
As the sit-in wore on, the governor of Agadez, Sadou Soloke, warned in a radio broadcast that the sit-in would be dispersed – forcibly if necessary – if the protesters did not return to the camp outside the city. “We can no longer stand by and watch them trample on our laws while they are being hosted by us,” the governor said of the asylum seekers.
The protesters did not seek the required authorisation before the sit-in began and “rejected any proposal for a friendly settlement”, Agadez mayor Maman Boukari told TNH in writing. “In accordance with the provisions of the law, we ordered the police to move the refugees,” he said.
“Nobody can believe this is happening… because there [are] children, there are women that are sleeping inside the camp.”
But the asylum seekers at the sit-in had no intention of returning to the camp before their grievances were addressed. The way they saw things, going back to the camp would only mean more waiting and uncertainty. “We expect disaster at any time because we have lost trust in the government and employees of UNHCR,” one demonstrater told TNH via text message on 3 January, anticipating the dispersal.
The following morning, security forces arrived with lorries and buses to take people back to the camp.
As the smoke settled from the fire at the humanitarian site, different versions of what transpired emerged.
According to asylum seekers at the sit-in, security forces forced people into the vehicles, beating those who didn’t comply, and severely injuring many. Mayor Boukari told TNH that no force was used to disperse the demonstration and that there were no recorded cases of injury.
Cell phone videos taken by asylum seekers show several instances of security forces hitting people with sticks or batons, and dragging them across the ground. Photos taken afterward show people with bloody wounds on their heads and bandaged limbs. But it is unclear from the videos and photos how widespread or severe the violence was, or what injuries people sustained.
Despite the different versions of events, one thing is certain: once back at the camp, a confrontation broke out between security forces and some of the asylum seekers. It appears – from accounts given to TNH by the mayor, UNHCR, and at least three asylum seekers – that an unknown number of people, angry at the dispersal of the sit-in, then started a blaze and burned most of the camp to the ground. Other accounts, that seem less credible, suggest the government used teargas at the camp and started the fire.
“The discussion of what Agadez will become is still on going with the government.”
“[Security forces] beat them… too much. When they’re back [from the sit-in], they hate everything and destroy it,” said one asylum seeker, who didn’t participate in the protest but was in the camp during the fire. “This is [a] crazy idea. Nobody can accept [it]. Nobody can believe this is happening… because there [are] children, there are women that are sleeping inside the camp,” the asylum seeker added.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured in the fire.
In its aftermath, 336 people were arrested for arson and planning the sit-in. As of 30 January, 196 were still being held in custody, of which 61 had been formally charged, according to UNHCR. Other Sudanese who are not currently in custody are also expected to receive judicial summons, UNHCR added.
After several weeks, the government gave UNHCR permission to install temporary shelter for the people still staying at the camp – they had been sleeping outside in rough shelters they cobbled together or in communal buildings on the site that survived the fire.
But the future of the effort to create a space to protect asylum seekers and refugees in Agadez is still uncertain. UNHCR is transferring some asylum seekers from Agadez to housing in Niamey and another UNHCR centre near the capital. “The discussion of what Agadez will become is still on going with the government,” Morelli said.
In the meantime, the asylum seekers still don’t have any more certainty about their futures than they did before the protest started, and some have told TNH they feel even more vulnerable and disillusioned. UNHCR said the government will respect the status of people who have already been recognised as refugees and continue to review asylum claims from people who have submitted files.
That process has already dragged on for more than two years, and ambiguity about why it is taking so long and where exactly it is heading was at the root of the protest to begin with. Following the dispersal, one Sudanese asylum seeker told TNH that he feared persecution by authorities in Niger and had returned to Libya with two of his friends. Others do not want to return to the violence and chaos of Libya and feel they have no option but to stay in Niger.
“I’m still in UNHCR’s hands. What they tell me, I’m ready,” one asylum seeker told TNH. “People, they hate the situation… [but] there’s no other choice.”