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Interview: EU Border Externalisation and the Migrant Transport Trade in Niger



Time to read

7 Minutes

Interview with Philippe Frowd by Alice Troy-Donovan. Philippe is a political scientist working on the politics of borders, migration, and security interventions. He is an Associate Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada, where he is currently researching the transnational governance of security in West Africa’s Sahel region. Alice is an intern on the Borderwork project at the Danish Institute for International Studies.This interview is part of a Themed Week on Border Externalisation in Africa. Posts are drawn from contributors to the Geopolitics Special Issue Borderwork in the Expanded EU-African Borderlands, which examines how historic and current European border interventions shape everyday lives and mobilities in Africa. This interview complements Philippe’s article in the Special Issue, Borderwork Creep in West Africa’s Sahel, which will be free to access for the next month, as part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms.


A police post in the south of Niger renovated with Dutch money

Sourced from Flickr

Niger is a focal point in the EU’s border externalisation policy, with over 782 million euros currently invested in national and regional projects which aim to reduce the number of people leaving the country for Europe via irregular migration routes. But the wider Sahel region – extending from Senegal eastwards to Sudan, between the Sahara Desert to the north and a belt of humid savannas to the south – has been a hub of movement for centuries. Goods, people, and ideas have been exchanged at this crossroads long before any association with ‘migration’, let alone its irregularised form. What policy makers now call the human smuggling trade is part of a centuries-old practice of transporting people across the desert, a history which is explored in Judith Scheele’s work on Saharan regional connectivity in the twentieth century.

For decades, the passage of western African migrants heading to Italian shores via Libya happened in full view – often with the complicity of Niger’s security forces. But in 2015, as EU panic grew over a large movement of migrants to Europe, the Nigerien government came under pressure to introduce a raft of legal changes targeted at the migrant transport industry. In addition to turning a well-established trade into criminal activity, these legal changes have removed a livelihood from thousands of people who worked in the migrant transport trade as, among other things, drivers, middlemen, cooks and water can sellers.

In this interview with Philippe Frowd we discuss EU policy discourse, securitisation, and what migrant transporters themselves say about the work they do.

Tell us about your research with migrant transporters. Why is it important to study their perspectives?

I’ve been working on migration and smuggling in Niger since about 2016 and have visited the country multiple times for fieldwork. This particular piece of research builds on this as well as more recent fieldwork undertaken in 2019 in the Nigerien cities of Niamey and Agadez by my colleagues Ini Dele-Adedeji and Elodie Apard. We heard from people working in the national and international border security field and Ini interviewed migrant transporters (so-called smugglers) in the Agadez region as well.

While migrant transporters are frequent objects of study in academic works on migration, the bulk of work tends to focus on the agency of states and other official actors or, of course, of migrants themselves. It is important for us to focus on migrant transporters’ narratives for two major reasons. First, these help us to understand their complexity as social actors, and their embeddedness in local economies. Second, we get a different vantage point on processes of criminalization and their effects. The migrant transport trade is built on a set of long-established practices of mobility that have existed in the central Sahara for a long time. These practices have only relatively recently been criminalised by new laws introduced in Niger, with the government for now placing its diplomatic relationships and commitments above these deeper social structures.

Academics’ understanding of ‘irregular’ migration is often informed solely by the narratives and perspectives of people who work in the world of policy or security. To nuance this perspective, we wanted to present some of the narratives from people who actually work in the trade of facilitating irregular migration, to get a better understanding of how they see themselves and their livelihoods.

What did the 2015 legal changes in Niger involve?

In 2015, the Nigerien government adopted a law against human smuggling which has dramatically reshaped both the political economy and daily life of people working in the migrant transport trade in the country’s Agadez region. Thousands of people are thought to have lost their livelihoods as a direct or indirect result of the changes.

The law was passed under considerable pressure from the EU and has contributed towards the criminalisation of migration movements in Niger. This has happened through, for instance, redirecting government spending towards military and security expenditure. Migrant transporters have also been forced to take more dangerous and hilly routes — which leads to more migrant deaths.

The law should be put in the context of Niger now being the largest recipient of EU aid per capita in the world, with much of this funding funnelled towards border enforcement and wider security priorities. Among the initiatives that EU funds have been spent on in Niger are refurbishing border posts, hiring judges, buying vehicles for the police, and training specialized anti-smuggling units.

What was the political climate in 2015 which led the EU to drive these changes?

The political climate was one in which the discourse of migrant crisis (in the Mediterranean and further south) was reaching a crescendo. These narratives of crisis are not totally disconnected from the numbers game: the entries and exits from Niger, as measured by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), were particularly high in this period. On the other side, the political context in Niger was one of growing international pressure (and resources) to curb the movement of people who pass through Niger on the way to Europe.

How have the legal changes impacted migrant transporters?

The people we spoke to as part of the project say that what was a flourishing migration economy has been demolished by the 2015 legal changes. In many cases the loss of livelihoods has meant tougher circumstances for their work: riskier routes, or waiting longer for enough migrants to carry across the desert. For others, it has meant changing careers and increased financial uncertainty. While we do not have evidence that transporters have had to become migrants themselves, we find a general tightening of their financial conditions.

Many migrant transporters found that measures intended to compensate for the decline in the migration economy (such as EU funded loans for small business ideas) were not a sufficient financial backstop. Previously, one person could make personal gains up to 300,000 West African CFA Francs (457 euros) on the day that a convoy carrying migrants departed. Now many are left with few other employment prospects.

How do migrant transporters perceive their work?

Those involved in the trade typically think of themselves as entrepreneurial businesspeople rather than criminal operators. They tend to see their work as just that, work, responding to market demands and the needs of their customers. They emphasise the relatively good financial rewards of this work compared with any other local opportunities.

The people we call ‘smugglers’ today have in fact been transporters of migrants for a long time. They think of themselves in those terms. It’s socially accepted, and in fact part of an economic and livelihood strategy. Many emphasise how much migrants appreciate their services and the importance of building trust, expertise and a good reputation to make a successful business.

Interestingly, some of the people we interviewed perceived security forces as being relatively similar to them, in terms of how they respond to their respective opportunity structures. Police were seen to be not so much guided by questions of law but more by personal advancement — taking bribes, smuggling goods — something that the transporters saw as a source of professional similarity.

What do you make of broader attempts by the EU – and its member states – to externalise their borders into Africa?

Externalisation is a fashionable trend, in a way. I think there’s a strong presumption on the part of European policymakers that migration is politically toxic and that irregular migration plays into the hands of the radical right. And I think a lot of governments from across the spectrum tend to see clamping down on immigration as a successful political strategy, as it’s perceived as being low risk; or rather, the risks are born by non-citizens, who have limited means to hold European governments to account.

I don’t see a strong institutional resistance at a global level to border externalisation. In fact, we see a willingness on the part of certain states in the global south to host some of the infrastructures — such as asylum processing centres — that make externalisation of borders possible. States such as Niger typically have some combination of smaller diasporas, fewer emigrants, or are simply happy to play along for diplomatic gains in other areas. So, it’s a political strategy for a European politician who is anxious about migration to seek collaboration with a state in the global south that has a diplomatic agenda that they can further by playing along. I definitely see externalisation as a strategy that is politically ‘successful’, even though it’s a very damaging one – with the power to destroy whole industries by illegalising practices such as migrant transportation which people have done for centuries.

I am also beginning to be sceptical of the term ‘externalisation’ itself. In one sense, this is because many of the dynamics we observe are driven from actors outside Europe, enforcing their own borders in harmful ways. In another sense, externalisation doesn’t capture that many of these border security practices are about disposing of inconvenient people, by preventing them from arriving in the first place. While externalisation might be what happens to borders, disposability is what happens to the people who are crossed by them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Troy-Donovan, A. (2022) Interview: EU Border Externalisation and the Migrant Transport Trade in Niger. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/05/interview-eu [date]

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