New study proves deadly impact of European migration regime in the Sahara
Responsible for the deaths in the Mediterranean is the European Union’s asylum and migration policy, which requires that asylum applications can only be made in one of its 27 member states. However, people also lose their lives far away from Fortress Europe because of this. A study published on Monday by the organisation Border Forensics entitled “Mission Accomplished?” proves this connection. According to the study, a law against the “illegal trafficking of migrants” passed in Niger in 2015 under pressure from the EU ensures that more and more people have to turn to riskier escape routes and therefore die of thirst in the Sahara. The government of Niger and its international partners, however, present this in a positive light and have developed the narrative of a “mission accomplished” to combat irregular migration, criticises Border Forensics.
The Geneva- and Berlin-based organisation investigates and documents state violence against refugees and migrants at various borders. The investigators and analysts use, among other things, technologies of so-called remote sensing such as satellite and weather data as well as information from open sources. From this data, Border Forensics generates reports, maps, video reconstructions and other visualisations. The study on Niger is the third elaboration of the young organisation. Earlier studies in 2022 were devoted to Frontex’s complicity with the Libyan coast guard and the reconstruction of the death of a refugee in the French Alps.
Law “2015-036” passed by parliament in Niger pushes migration services underground. These include transport service providers, shelter providers or intermediaries. Until the law was passed, their activities were legal in the country, which has always been accustomed to migration. Since then, it has been criminalised not only to assist in irregular border crossing, but also in transit through the country. With this law, the government of Niger is also obstructing the freedom of movement that the country, as a participant in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), actually has to guarantee.
Due to its central location, Niger has become a corridor for refugees from sub-Saharan countries such as Sudan, but also Nigeria and Burkina Faso. These routes all lead through the Sahara. The study by Border Forensics looks at three locations on the section of the route between the capital Agadez, located on the edge of the desert, and the Libyan city of Sabha. There, the town of Séguédine, the military outpost of Madama and the checkpoint of Toummo are located on the Niger-Libya border.
How many people actually die of thirst there is largely unknown. Figures are provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) with its Missing Migrants Project, which has already noted a significant increase since the enactment of law “2015-036”. According to this, 56 people died or went missing in the desert in 2015, two years later it was already 433. In total, the IOM counts 1.092 migrants who died or disappeared while trying to cross the desert in Niger since 2014. For the entire Sahara, this number is said to be 1.329 – with a presumably significantly higher number of unreported cases.
The routes of the refugees and migrants have changed drastically since the implementation of the law “2015-036” in 2016, as the study by Border Forensics proves with the help of satellite data. To do this, the authors processed high-resolution images from open sources, including maps from Microsoft’s Bing service and Google Earth, as well as satellite and aerial images from the company ESRI and, in cases where the analyses required higher resolution, from commercial providers. Thus, according to Border Forensics, “a recurring pattern emerges that points to a clear link between increased border controls and the fragmentation of migration routes”.
The Nigerien government as well as EU agencies such as Frontex blame transport drivers, who are considered “people smugglers” under the new law, for the increase in deaths and disappearances. Such a connection does exist, but behind it is also the politics of migration defence. Law “2015-036” forces drivers into more remote areas of the desert and increases the risk if their pick-up or truck breaks down there. Because drivers do not want to be punished, in many cases they flee the scene to avoid arrest. For the passengers, the chances of getting water in the desert decrease considerably in this way. Border Forensics also presents this in their study: Recurrent events such as vehicle breakdowns or water shortages greatly reduce the passengers’ chances of survival.
Border Forensics wants to make the risk of dehydration measurable and thus comparable in the study. In a “cost-distance analysis”, factors such as wind speed, the nature of the land surface, vegetation, solar radiation and temperature are taken into account to estimate how much drinking water a person needs. If this person has to walk back to a main road to reach a water source or a place of human activity because of a lack of water due to a problem in the desert, he or she dries out further. Border Forensics is also trying to measure this sweat loss and determine the “point of fatal dehydration”.
Border Forensics calls for more efforts to prevent the “human cost of border controls”. According to the organisation, Italy and Denmark, among others, were responsible for the drafting and implementation of the law “2015-036”. “All actors – whether from Niger, Europe, UN agencies and other –- involved in the drafting and implementation of the law should be held to account for the increased deaths and suffering of migrants it has caused,” says Rhoumour Ahmet Tchilouta, one of Border Forensics’ lead investigators on the project. The EU, its agencies and member states should end all policies and programmes that contribute to the externalisation of borders, a press release adds.
However, it does not look like this will happen, on the contrary. Due to their withdrawal from Mali, Niger is becoming more and more important as a new base for European military, with troops also being deployed in the border area. A year ago, the EU also agreed with Niger on a “partnership to combat trafficking in human beings”. It is intended to prevent deaths in the desert and to thwart the “business model of criminal networks”, according to the EU Commission. Support also comes from Frontex, which has concluded a working agreement with the EU mission launched in Niger to advise and train the Nigerien security authorities. In it, Frontex wants to involve other Nigerien forces in border control. The partners will also have access to data from the Eurosur border surveillance system, which is largely based on satellite reconnaissance.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: After failed EU missions in Mali, also EU troops move now for upcoming EU mission EUMPM to its neighbouring country Niger. They should also work more closely with Frontex. A new agreement with Niger includes the framework of EUROSUR (Frontex).