Niger: the turning point to the Mediterranean

Niger is a transit zone with tempting border crossings for those seeking refuge in other countries, mainly in Europe


The conflict in the Sahel is a war between jihadists with traffickers and armies.

Historically, Niger has been, and remains, a transit country. Its borders with Algeria and Libya are tempting for people who decide to seek refuge in Europe, whether for economic reasons or forced displacement resulting from the conflict in the Sahel. Niger is also the turning point for the central Mediterranean route, the busiest and most dangerous route, and, as if that were not enough, Niger is also the limit of free movement of people for West Africans. From the border with Niger and the Sahara desert to Libya, in the hands of drug traffickers, many people are constantly subjected to torture, violence and atrocities. According to the same Organisation for Migration, the Sahara desert has twice as many deaths and disappearances as the Mediterranean.

This article aims to analyse the emergence of migratory routes and, specifically, that of the central Mediterranean. However, in order to understand the situation, the conflict in Mali, the Boko Haram insurgency and the global conflict that prevails in most Sahelian countries cannot be ignored. In this way, we delve into the historical past of Mali and Libya, also analysing the political instrumentalisation of the European Union and France, who have an interest in preserving the plundering of the country's natural resources.

Niger: background and current situation

Niger is the least developed country in the world according to the Human Development Index (HDI). Almost half of its population is under 15 years of age and 50%1 of them do not attend school. In education, gender parity remains a distant challenge due to security problems in accessing schools and child marriage. 76% of girls are married. Seventy-six per cent of girls are married before age 18 and 38% become brides at age 15. This practice is supported by the Civil Code, and although the legal age of marriage has been raised to 21, there are no penalties for those who break the age of marriage with parental consent2.

Along with widespread illiteracy, Niger is also one of the most fertile countries in the world with a mortality rate of almost 50 %, a consequence of the lack of security and health guarantees for the population3. Its more than 20 million inhabitants survive on barely two dollars a day and their main source of income is subsistence farming and onion growing. However, this country on the border between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa is one of the richest countries in terms of uranium, oil and gold, which are the most exported materials to Saudi Arabia, France and China4.

In the midst of this situation, on 2 April 2021, Mohamed Bazoum took office for the first time in Niger's history, the first transfer of power between freely elected leaders since its independence from France (1960)5. Since then, the country has experienced four military coups d'état and a civilian self-coup. Today, Bazoum's government faces a worsening multi-faceted Islamist subversion.


On Niger's southern flank, the bloody onslaught of Boko Haram, the Salafist terrorist organisation that has been holding the Nigerian army, the most powerful in sub-Saharan Africa, in check since 2012, is radiating. Meanwhile, on the south-western flank, the Saharan branches of Al-Qaeda (GSIM) and the Islamic State (ISGS)6 have been battered. These insurgencies date back years, coinciding with the war in Mali in 2012, the year after the fall of Gaddafi. At that time, the Tuareg nationalist movement launched its third rebellion7 and succeeded in proclaiming the independence of Azawad, northern Mali, with the cooperation of the fundamentalist militia Ansar Din (Defenders of the Faith) and MUYAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), one of the offshoots of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb8. However, weeks after the proclamation, the ambitions of the Islamists went further and both coalitions took control of all the cities in northern Mali. The country was divided into the south, controlled by the Malian state, and the north, controlled by jihadist groups. Eventually, the Tuareg were driven out of Mali and returned to the arid desert of neighbouring countries, including Niger.

The spillover of conflict to neighbouring countries is self-evident, and the relationship between the Tuaregs and Islamic terrorist groups cannot be understood without the personality of Muammar Qadhafi9. The Tuareg are a nomadic Berber people of approximately 2 million inhabitants and, since before decolonisation, they have been fighting for the independence of a territory that represents them10. They are known worldwide for living in tune with the desert and being the forefathers of trade routes in North Africa, which today is known as one of the main migratory routes to the Mediterranean11.

In the 1980s, the Libyan leader called on the Tuareg people to join his Islamic Legion because of his knowledge of trans-Saharan routes12. The ultimate goal was a double-edged sword. Some got protection and recognition while Gaddafi realised his dream of building a united Muslim state in North Africa. But after a decade, the Legion was forced to disband and Gaddafi integrated them into special militias of the Libyan army. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the assassination of the Libyan leader, the political instability in the country and the outgoing racism forced these mercenaries to return to Mali to stage their third rebellion and become independent at last. The blow was hard, as this time they had been trained by the Libyan army and were armed. However, as mentioned above, the result was not as expected.

Throughout this journey, Niger, a country bordering Mali and Libya, has been the refuge and target of some Tuareg rebellions, but Islamist expansion has not ceased. In 2015, the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a paramilitary and terrorist organisation active in the area of Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger, was established. The Tuareg struggle was definitively put on the back burner.

Political instrumentalisation: relations with Libya and the European Union

Niger's porous borders have always been an attraction for Muammar Gaddafi. In 1992, the United Nations imposed an embargo on air and arms traffic between member states and Libya after his involvement in terrorist attacks became known. The first was against Pan Am Flight 103 in 1983, which killed 270 passengers. A year later, six Libyan agents, including a brother-in-law of the leader, were charged as perpetrators of another attack in Niger, when a French UTA airliner exploded. The event resulted in 170 fatalities13

If Gaddafi could not continue his foreign relations, he had to lead Africa. Thus, he began a series of 'pan-African' measures to make Libya the leading power. One example of this was the creation of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD)14, which aimed to promote sustained socio-economic development and, among other measures, allowed the free movement of people without the need for a visa, which led to an increase in emigration to the country. In 2003 alone, some 2 million sub-Saharan Africans were living in Libya.

The migration boom to Europe since the 2000s began to worry northerners, reaching a tipping point that the Libyan leader capitalised on. The EU's desperation to impose border controls brought Libya closer to the EU's agenda, and the embargo was brought to an end. In the early 2000s, Gaddafi gradually began to cooperate with investigations into the attacks. This strengthened his position in the EU, and in 2003 Italy and Libya signed a cooperation agreement on regulating migration to Europe. Italy dedicated 5.5 million dollars to this issue. For the dictator, this was a new opening for international relations with the EU, and in the same year the UN finally lifted the embargo on Libya. For migrants, mobility restrictions returned and Gaddafi's 'Pan-Africanism' came to an end15.

Agreements between Libya and Italy were consecutively renewed. In 2007, the two powers agreed on a new border control mission led by FRONTEX, the European External Borders Agency, which was established in Libya in 2004. This new agreement re-imposed the need for a visa to enter Libya. Meanwhile, Italy funded the construction of detention centres and repatriation services to Libya. In 2007, mixed patrols were also set up along the Libyan coast to detain irregular migrant boats, a measure that Amnesty International said contradicted international law and which was renewed in February 202016

With the fall of Gaddafi, the lawlessness and control of the borders stabilised by the externalisation of the EU's borders broke down. Lack of security on the part of government institutions, criminality prevailed in the control of migratory flows. This institutional crisis coincided with droughts and a drop in agricultural production in the Sahel. In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that every year, some 30 tonnes of cocaine passed through the Sahel to Europe. At that time, Niger had one of the biggest drug traffickers linked to the party of the current Nigerien government: Cherif Ould Abidine, also known as Cherif Cocaine17. Deceased in 2016, Cherif Cocaine held seats in the National Assembly (2011-2012) and also held the presidency of the Agadez region in 2016, as well as being the owner of one of the main transnational bus companies.

In those days, smuggling was linked to human trafficking. Now, although there are many suspicions of narco-jihadist links, it is still considered exaggerated according to Global Initiative, an organisation against transnational crime18

In any case, in 2011, border control between Niger and Libya failed despite being linked to ECOWAS (Economic Community of African States)19, which guarantees border control between the two countries. On the contrary, migration continued to accelerate with new, longer and more dangerous routes. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), it is estimated that four times as many migrants arrived in Libya in 2015 as in the Gaddafi era. In the same year, European media headlines were reporting on the refugee crisis that erupted in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict. By the end of 2015, more than 2.5 million people were seeking political asylum within Turkey's borders and more than 1 million managed to reach Europe, either by sea or by land.

Used to a system of cooperation with Libya, Niger was mired in poverty20. The country's economy adapted to the transit of people, which was one of the main businesses that fed the Nigeriens. For its part, the EU needed to curb the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers on its soil, so it found in Niger a strategic niche for border control. That same year, in 2015, Niger introduced a law criminalising the smuggling of migrants. This new measure, which has the financial support of the European Union, provides for 30 years in prison and a fine of more than 45,000 euros for those who continue with this business21.

But beyond migration, uranium and oil production was of concern to world powers. France owns Areva and Satom, two companies that exploit one of the uranium mines in northern Niger. In 2014, with the support of the other EU member states, France decided to create the Sahel G5, an initiative that integrates Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad and aims to provide coordination to respond to migratory flows, terrorist radicalisation and transnational organised crime. In addition, France also has military bases in these countries through the French military operation Barkhane, which also fights insurgent groups in the same area22.

For its part, Spain also has operations in the area. In 2006, the Canary Islands received 31,978 migrants in the so-called "cayuco crisis"23. At that time, the Spanish state's concern to prevent further arrivals gave way to the "Africa Plan"24, which consisted of a greater military presence in the Canary Islands. which consisted of exercising a greater military presence in Mali, Cape Verde, Nigeria and Senegal, as well as providing cooperation and security assistance. However, in 2013, Spain began to collaborate bilaterally with France, providing logistical support to French troops, MINUSMA (United Nations Mission in Mali) and ETUM Mali in order to establish control in the country and fight joint terrorism in the Sahel.

These policies are double-sided strategies for the Nigerien economy. On the one hand, Niger benefits from EU trust funds, allowing it to maintain diplomatic relations with high-level officials. On the other hand, several human rights organisations such as Open Democracy have denounced the corruption of the Nigerien government, at the time led by former president Mahamadou Issoufou, who ruled the country from 2011 until February 2021. These accusations implicate people with close ties to the Nigerian government as leaders of the people smuggling industry. Thus, ending human smuggling would be tantamount to ending the stability of the regime. In the end, Niger's livelihood in the midst of a powder keg is based on establishing business so as not to fall into check, whatever side it is on.

Atrocities in the Sahara: extortion, sexual violence and death

As of June this year, 20,787 people have reached the Italian and Maltese coast via the Central Mediterranean Route (from Libya to Europe) and almost 7,000 via the West-Atlantic Route (from Senegal to the Canary Islands)25. The latter is a consequence of the economic crisis unleashed in Senegal and Morocco as a result of COVID-1926. As indicated by Fatou Faye, migration policy officer for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in West Africa, the media noise is due to the deaths, but migrants started arriving on the Canary coasts at the end of August 2020. According to the organisation Caminando Fronteras, in the first half of this year alone, 1,922 people lost their lives in 57 shipwrecks. Taking into account all migratory routes passing through the Mediterranean and according to the latest data updated in August 2021, the IOM has recorded 1,195 deaths, 1,009 of which occur through the central Mediterranean route. However, there are no organisations counting the disappearances and deaths of migrants in the Sahara desert towards Libya.

Migrants fleeing from Niger to Libya start their journey in Agadez, the capital of the northern region. As mentioned, Niger borders ECOWAS, as well as the G5 Sahel region, so its borders to Libya and Algeria are controlled by European and Nigerien authorities. Moreover, irregular border crossings are a crime punishable by imprisonment and fines of more than $45,000 for smugglers. However, once arrived, migrants and asylum seekers are put into pick-up trucks to cross the desert. Such a crossing can take days or weeks, making food and water supplies both necessary and scarce.

In 2017, 44 migrants died of thirst in northern Niger when their pick-up truck broke down before crossing the border into Libya27. In most cases, this happens because of reckless driving by the smuggler. A Nigerian man interviewed by the Mixed Migrants Center (MMC) said that it is "the smugglers overload the vehicles without adequate seating for the passengers. Many of us were sitting on the edge. One fellow passenger fell off while the vehicle was still speeding. We buried his body by covering it with sand and marked the grave with heaped stones. It was then that I realised how many people had lost their lives in the desert. It was full of those very signs"28 .  

That same year Giuseppe Loprete, former IOM Head of Mission in Niger, argued that "this tragedy is a grim reminder that more migrants probably die in the Sahara desert than in the Mediterranean but that, due to the hostile nature of the region, it is impossible to know the exact number"29. Another report by UNHCR and the CMM notes that more than 1,750 people died between 2018 and 2019 on this same route. Of these, 28% are estimated to have happened while crossing the desert, a place where, beyond the climate, these people witness "unspeakable brutality" at the hands of traffickers, trafficking networks, militias to government officials. In fact, in the desert between Niger and Libya, 47%30 of cases of sexual violence are perpetrated by police, security forces, military, immigration officials or border guards, followed by human traffickers themselves.

According to the Zone of Responsibility (ZDR)31 for Gender-Based Violence in Libya, sexual violence is used to "extort, subdue, punish and entertain traffickers. It often takes place in public or is recorded to later serve as a weapon of humiliation and/or extortion, involving blatant psychological torture". In addition, "men and boys are forced to witness episodes of sexual violence against women and girls (including cases of lethal rape with objects) in official and unofficial captivity centres and in the desert. Cases of men and boys being forced to rape women and girls, sometimes even from their own family, are frequently reported. Women are also forced to commit sexual violence against refugee and migrant men and boys". In the absence of contraceptive pills, many women become pregnant by traffickers who, if the baby is not lost due to the mother's health problems, may claim the child once it is born.

Sadly, the desert is only the first of many journeys that await them until they reach Tripoli, Libya's capital. The next is usually Sebha, where those who can continue to pay the traffickers continue their journey. Those who cannot are enslaved or even sold. However, there is no worse hell than the city of Bani Walid32. This city is located about 100 kilometres from Tripoli, the capital of the country, and is considered to be the hub of human trafficking in Libya. As an example of this, in March 2021, seventy migrants beaten and tortured in six secret prisons in the city were released by the Libyan authorities. During the operation, filmed evidence of torture was found where a man was beaten and hung upside down and a handcuffed woman violently beaten with sticks33.


In all, we can affirm that the conflict in the Sahel is a war between jihadists with traffickers and armies in a vast desert area that inevitably spills over to its neighbours: Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad - the same powers that make up the Sahel G534 - and the countries near the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. But the victims are always the same: civilians, witnesses to atrocities and succumbed to all kinds of violence.

In 2020, 103,000 people from Lake Chad took refuge in Niger in the Diffa region due to the impacts of Boko Haram, which is causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis35. Alongside these, approximately 140,00036 people have taken refuge in Tillabéri and Tahoua (bordering Mali) due to attacks by jihadist groups. At the same time, as a result of conflict, natural disasters and stagnant poverty in the country, some 300,000 Nigerians37 fled to Libya in search of economic stability, but, after the tightening of the borders, they were repatriated to their country of origin.

Faced with the complexity and danger of crossing the desert and the Mediterranean, many have already given up on escaping to Europe in search of a better future. For while it is true that northward migration is a historical and unstoppable fact, the vast majority of migration is to countries within the continent's borders. For its part, the EU has an important role to play in this, especially by cooperating with countries dependent on international debts for their livelihoods, as is the case in Niger. Externalising and establishing border controls means new, longer and more dangerous crossings. Yet another example of how complying with human rights is just a privilege.

Covertly, but with sufficient knowledge, one in every 130 women is under conditions of modern slavery (71% of all victims are women and girls)38 and, due to conflicts, more than 20,000 children39 (identified) have been victims of sexual violence worldwide since 2006. However, it is well known that the clandestine nature of migration routes brings out the darker side of the human being, and the Central Mediterranean route does not shy away from this, but rather the opposite.


  1. Expansión. Pirámide de población: Níger,
  2. VAGLIANI Ginevra, Matrimonio infantile en “África Subsahariana. El caso de Níger”. Diciembre 2020, 
  3. World Data Atlas, “Niger-Infant mortality rate”, 2019.
  4. Observatory of the Economic Complexity, Niger historical data:, 2019
  5. DE ZÁRATE, Roberto Ortiz, Presidente de la República de Níger, “Mohamed Bazoum”. Biografías de líderes políticos del CIDOB:, Febrero 2021.
  6. CIERZO, “Yihadismo en el Sahel”. Análisis Descifrando la Guerra:, mayo 2017.
  7. GONZÁLEZ M, Jorge. “El factor tuareg en el norte de África”. Análisis Descifrando la Guerra:, diciembre 2017.
  8. TEBAS, Juan Alberto Mora. “Níger: baricentro de conflictos”. Documento de análisis IEEE 2018., Fecha de consulta: 10/08/2021.
  9. AGUILAR HIDALGO, Irene Díaz. “Migración hacia Europa por la ruta de Níger y Libia”. Documento de análisis IEEE 01/2018. Fecha de consulta: 08/08/2021
  10. TINTI, Peter y WESTCOTT, Tom. The Niger-Lybia corridor. Institute for Security Studies, 2016 Fecha de consulta: 10/08/2021
  11. STIRTON, Ben. Los tuareg: príncipes del desierto del Sáhara:, noviembre 2016.
  12. Ibid. 9
  13. Exagente de Gadafi construyó la bomba que en 1988 derribó una avión de Pan Am sobre Lockerbie,
  15. Ibid. 9
  16. AMNISTIA INTERNACIONAL, “Libia: La renovación del acuerdo sobre la migración confirma la complicidad de Italia en la tortura de personas migrantes y refugiadas”:, enero 2020
  17. PÉREZ VENTURA, Juan, “Colonización en el S.XXI:, mayo 2019.
  18. TINTI, Peter. Niger’s narco-networks. Documento de análisis de Global Initiative:, junio 2018
  19. Economic institute of West Africa. ECOWAS:
  20. STEARNS, Scott. Niger says Libia instability Undermines Security, Economy:, September 2011.
  21. Ibid. 9
  22. GONZÁLEZ M, Jorge. El fin de Barkhane y el futuro de la intervención francesa en el Sahel. Descifrando la Guerra: Junio 2021.
  23. JIMÉNEZ, Jennifer. Canarias recibió durante la crisis de los cayucos más de 10 millones de turistas. El Diciembre 2020.
  24. URTEAGA, Diego. “15 años de relaciones Entre España y el Shael”. Documento de análisis del IEEE 09/2020: Fecha de consulta: 18/08/2021.
  25. RO DAKAR, Afrique De L’Ouest Et Du Centre. Janvier-Juin 2021. Flow Monitoring from IOM:’ouest-et-du-centre-—-routes-de-la-migration-irrégulières-vers-l’europe-—-0, Julio 2021.
  26. EFE, La covid-19 reabre la ruta migratoria desde las costas de Senegal a Canarias,, Dakar, noviembre 2020.
  27. DE ARAGON, Ariana. Encuentran 44 migrantes muertos en el desierto del Sahara. Televisa.News:, junio 2017
  28. DARME, Marie-Cecile. Mixed Migration Trends in Lybia: Changing dynamics and protection challenges:, February 2017.
  29. IOM, Missing Migrants, Más de 40 migrantes mueren de sed en el Desierto del Sahara. Suiza:, Febrero 2017.
  30. DARME, Marie-Cecile. Mixed Migration Trends in Lybia: Changing dynamics and protection challenges:, February 2017.
  31. BREEN, Duncan. “En ese viaje a nadie le importa si vives o mueres”, ACNUR y MMC, abuso protección y justicia a lo largo de las rutas de la costa Oriental y Occidental y la costa mediterránea africana, julio 2020.
  32. BIBI, Charif. Exclusive: Smuggling network source reveals harrowing details of migrants death journey inside Lybia:, InfoMigrants, February 2021.
  33. CARRETERO, Leslie. “Libya: 70 migrants freed from Beni Walid secret prisons”:, InfoMigrants, March 2021
  34. DE FOY, France Philippart, “El Efecto domino que causa la muerte del presidente chadiano en el Sahel”:, La Razón, abril 2021.
  35. SÁNCHEZ, Jairo. “El impacto del terrorismo en el Lago Chad: crisis humanitaria y políticas necesarias”. Documento de análisis de IEEE 22/2021: Fecha de consulta 18/08/2021.
  36. Internal Displacement Monitoring Center: Niger:, 2020.
  37. PUIG, Oriol. Los retornados nigerinos de Libia tras el conflicto del 2011:, Anuario de antropología Ibernoamericana, noviembre 2019
  38. Walk Free Organization, “Stacked Ods. One in every 130 females globally is living in modern slavery”:, 2020.
  39. SAPIEZYNSKA, Ewa, document for Save the Clindren, “Weapon of War. Sexual violence against children in conflict”:, 2019