Migration has been an essential mechanism for survival in the harsh climate and erratic agricultural conditions of the Sahara and Sahel regions for as long as people have lived there.
Perhaps a third of the 2 million people who live there are considered nomads, according to various statistics. Millions of others travel far and wide to find work during the dry season, sending back money to help their families survive, and then returning home themselves during the rainy season to work, plant and harvest from June to November.
But sitting outside the office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Niger, a group of former migrants recently arrived back in Niger from Libya said migration gave them a life of misery in the Libyan capital Tripoli, battling abusive employers, malaria, and low wages.
“Living in Tripoli means accepting all kinds of inhuman and degrading treatment: Libya is a land of all kinds of discrimination between people; it is not a welcoming place, and that’s why I have taken the chance to come back to Niger,” said one former migrant.
Now the IOM is running a four-week sensibilisation campaign in Niger’s capital Niamey, as well as Tahoua in the northeast and Maradi in the south, two regions from where the majority of Niger’s migrants hail, using former migrants to warn people about the dangers and realities of living abroad.
Tens of thousands of Nigeriens work in Libya. Between 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) yearly, according to estimates collated by Hein de Haas, a researcher at the International Migration Institute at Oxford University. Of those, 70 to 80 percent are believed to migrate through Libya and 20 to 30 percent through Algeria and Morocco.
So many Nigeriens are in Libya, Haas said, because of the long border the two countries share, combined with the large amount of informal labour the country requires. He said that relatively few, less than 10,000, travel on to Europe. The money they send back to Niger forms a major part of Niger’s economy. Official remittances in 2005 totalled some US$60 million, according to the World Bank, with undocumented remittances to Niger believed to be even higher.
But for IOM, the risks that Nigerien migrants undergo are unacceptable. “As part of efforts to combat significant levels of irregular migrations from Niger…. The government of Niger and IOM have launched an information campaign aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of irregular migration in order to better prevent it,” the IOM in Niger said in a communication announcing the programme.
IOM spokeswoman for West Africa Jo-Lind Roberts added that only once people have arrived in their destinations do they find out there are very few opportunities for them. “And that’s also something that only someone who has tried to cross either by sea or desert has experienced. People here [in West Africa] have no idea about the lack of opportunity when they travel.”
But researchers of migration question whether information campaigns will stop the flow. “Providing information to people is fine, especially so they are aware of the very present dangers,” Haas said. But he noted: “These campaigns portray migrants as victims and as vulnerable people who don’t know what they are doing. Based on my own experience interviewing migrants I don’t have that impression,” he said.
In his view migration is an economic imperative for many Africans. “The fact remains that the income gaps between sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and Europe are huge, so the main rational for economic migration is still there.”
Information campaigns have also been tried in Senegal, where tens of thousands of people make dangerous boat journeys across the Atlantic to Europe each year, driven by poverty and a search for the relative wealth they see other successful migrants have achieved.
Papa Demba Fall, a senior researcher focused on migration at Cheikh Ante Diop University in the capital Dakar said the campaign proved to be of little value. “It should not be forgotten that people who choose to leave are already well aware of the risks,” he said. “They know it very well, they have seen it themselves, but that doesn’t change their minds, and that is shown by the fact that more not less people are migrating every year from Senegal.”
The IOM estimates that 31,000 people attempted the journey to Europe by sea from Senegal in 2006, of whom some 6,000 died or went missing at sea.
The IOM supports government efforts to better control borders with equipment and training. It also provides support to migrants seeking to repatriate and reintegrate. Some 50 Nigerien migrants have returned voluntarily from Libya since February 2007.
But IOM’s information is also useful, Roberts said. “I agree that potential migrants already know what the dangers are in a general way but it’s not the same as actually being able to talk with someone who has lived through it,” she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions