This analysis report has been published in The Outsider magazine.
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The migration policy of the EU has focused on security border control and prevention of immigration arrivals throughout the recent years. At the peak of immigration, in Spain’s Canary Islands in 2006, the EU’s efforts in reducing migrant arrivals set a precedent for immigration policy, relevant in today’s current refugee crisis. Development aid has become a bargaining chip in significantly decreasing migration: blackmail against which the poorest African countries – such as Niger – can do little about.
Gerardo Mesa Noda vividly remembers the days working through that wave of migration, the largest the Canaries has ever known. Some of his experiences he will always bear in mind, like meeting Tina`s family. “One day a `patera´ [raft] arrived to Puerto del Rosario, Fuerteventura,” Gerardo Mesa recounts. “All the immigrants could get off the boat on their own two feet. All, but one. He lied on the floor and said just one word: Tina”.
Volunteers nearby realized that a woman called Tina was living in a shelter of the Red Cross. Gerardo Mesa continues, “I asked for people to find her. She had gone for a walk with her baby”. The immigrant, who could barely walk, turned out to be her husband and the father of her baby. “When she arrived at the dock, some of us could not stop our tears. Still today, thinking about that gives me goosebumps”, Gerardo Mesa Noda tells.
Gerardo Noda is the President of the Red Cross in Fuerteventura at that time and today, President of the Canary Red Cross and he has been on the ground since the beginning, an eyewitness to the events.
The Canary Islands had their own immigration crisis more than two decades ago. Since the first boat arrived at the Canary shores carrying just two people in 1994, the arrival of immigrants started to increase until a peak of more than 30.000 people in 2006 alone.
This group of seven Spanish Islands became an immigration route in the 90s due to a close relationship that the Canaries – and more specifically people from Fuerteventura – had with Sahrawi people. During the Franco dictatorship, a bunch of Fuerteventurans decided to look for their fortune in the African continent. The shortest distance between the island of Fuerteventura and the area of Tarfaya in southern Morocco is about a hundred kilometers.
Gerardo Mesa explains that “with Spain’s abandonment of Western Sahara [in 1976], Sahrawi people started to feel maltreated and underestimated by the Moroccan government. Then, some of them decided to earn money, by fishing, in order to flee from the control of Moroccans”. The proximity of both shores allowed Saharan fishermen to see the shine of the lighthouse on the Spanish Island. “And they followed the light. They fled towards it”, he adds.
However, not only fisherman saw the light. Human smugglers did as-well. The well-known migration route in Gibraltar had become more difficult for smugglers. Mafias soon realized that there could be a new route to Europe through the Atlantic Ocean. By the end of 1990s, the Canary Islands became a hotspot for migration with people coming mainly from Sub-Saharan countries through the new Western African route. It connects Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco with the archipelago.
Dr. Vicente Manuel Zapata Hernández, Senior Lecturer of Human Geography at La Laguna University, explains that, “when the arrival of immigrants increased, people started to feel fear and uncertainty influenced by distorted and misleading media coverage. Towards the end, people tended to associate immigration with diseases, crime and drug trafficking. If we also consider that the Canaries is one of Spain’s poorest regions, the situation becomes really complex. Then, when reactions against immigration occurs, government decisions are swayed”.
Action-Reaction on the West Side
Effectively, the Spanish Government and the European Union made a move. “It was generated agreements basically based on the idea of externalizing border control through cooperation with third countries. The aim was to move the problem to the origin countries, giving to them resources, tools and training for their security forces. This way, they [the third countries] could do their job well, of preventing people from leaving to Europe”, Dr. Vicente says.
Operation Hera I began in 2006 in the Canaries, coordinated by the EU’s external border agency, Frontex, as requested by the Spanish government. The aim of reducing arrivals was enforced by employing aerial, maritime and terrestrial assets. Moreover, Spain pushed for a number of policies concerning «irregular migration» in Morocco, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, such as repatriation agreements or fishing bans.
The numbers dropped by 60% in 2007 and continued dropping until by 2012 there were just 170 arrivals. In their Risk Analysis 2017 report, Frontex had declared that the number of detections in the Canary Islands “continued at a low level”, with 423 people.
Hera I was the ﬁrst joint operation with non-EU member states that Frontex coordinated and according to the institution, served as ‘the foundation of all subsequent joint sea operations”. Moreover, the Frontex Deputy Executive Director, Gil Arias Fernández declared in 2008, that “the Canaries is a good example for coordination of management of EU external borders”.
The foreign policies that the EU and member states have undertaken in recent years, in light of the outbreak of the migration and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, could be said to have been inspired by the Spanish archipelago’s actions.
However, what was sold as a success in the Canaries and in the EU in the reduction of immigration rates, also meant that those who want to migrate were forced to look for other routes.
The EU taking the rudder of the boat
In 2015, over one million people reach the EU by sea. By then, EU standard barometers revealed that immigration had become Europeans’ number one concern at the EU level and the second most important issue at the member state level.
Feelings about immigration from beyond EU borders were mostly negative which linked to the rise of far-right populism with its anti-migrant rhetoric. Then, the EU decided to launch the EU Trust Fund (EUTF) for Africa with the aim of tackling the root causes of irregular migration in origin and transit regions in Africa.
This fund has been built with more that 85% coming from development aid funds. The main goal of EU development cooperation – as formulated in the Lisbon Treaty – states that EU development cooperation must have `the reduction and, in the long term, the eradication of poverty´. However, a considerable portion of its funding is invested in security measures and border management.
The agreement includes some “positive and negatives incentives” that create conditionality between access to development aid and political agreements on migration. A ‘blackmail’ that has moved more than 120 NGOs to protest against it.
A new migration route has emerged
The Canary route had been almost inactivated by the time Muammar al-Qaddafi, the former ruler of Libya, was ousted in 2011. Then, Agadez, Niger, emerged as the principal gateway for West African migrants and asylum-seekers bound for Europe.
Tomás Pastor, vicepresident of the NGO ‘Acoger y Compartir’ which translates to ‘Receive and Sharing’, explains that “Agadez is located in the North of Niger where the Sahel is harsher.” The Sahel, is a transitional zone between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savanna. “The inhabitants are mainly nomads, from the Tuareg or Peul tribes. You can feel this in their way of life. Agadez has historically been a crossroad for trade. Recently, it has also turned into a hub for smuggling networks and weapons trade”. ‘Acoger y Compartir’ has different projects in Niger and Burkina Faso.
Qaddafi had blocked those trying to reach the wealthier continent as part of a $5-billion aid package from Italy. However, unable to find reliable partners among the competing armed factions, after the Libyan dictator fell, Europe turned to Niger to control the movement of migrants, even those who didn’t necessarily want to go to Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 333.891 migrants travelled through Agadez to Algeria and Libya in 2016 alone.
Niger, a closed gateway
This situation put Niger within gun sight of Europe and became one of the five priority countries of the EUTF. Niger is positioned 187 out of 188 countries on the human development index in 2017 and according to ACNUR, is the fifth poorest country in the world. Last but not least, more than 60 percent of its 17 million people survive on less than $1 a day.
Some of the Agadez region’s key economic sectors – tourism and artisan handicrafts – fell in decline over the past few years due to the wake of terrorist attacks and kidnappings in the region, among others. Then, the boom in the migration brought a windfall. The migration industry offered direct jobs for approximately 6,000 to 7,000 people and indirect incomes to reportedly more than half of the households in Agadez.
“Everyone knows that immigrants come here. There are people waiting for them when the buses arrive at night. I have seen them. People from the town offer them to stay in the “guettos”. There, immigrants are organized depending on their nationalities. Everything is so well organized”, explains Tomás Pastor.
It just took a while for the EU to realize what was going on. The pressure from Nigeria’s wealthy neighbor translated into a Nigerian law which criminalized smugglers transporting migrants from Agadez to Algeria and Libya.
This policy has focused on the arrest of smugglers, the closure of the ‘ghettos’ and the confiscation of the trucks used to transport migrants across the desert. Its implementation has resulted in an estimated 75 percent decrease in the northbound migration flows monitored by the IOM in the first half of 2017.
People in Agadez have become increasingly frustrated. They feel that the local political authorities are working to the advantage of the EU rather than their own population, as shows in a report from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’.
Funds from the EUTF was meant to cover the loss of migration revenues. However, almost half of all EUTF support is allocated to local authorities to reduce transit of migrants. Only the remaining funding focuses on development and protection activities. But, while the implementation of development aid takes time, the cutting off smuggling revenues has been immediate.
“Truly, the economy of this region is based on uranium mining. Niger is one of the world’s primary producers of uranium. However, Niger does not reap the profits. You can be in Agadez or Niamey, the capital of Niger, and be unable to switch on your phone because there is no electricity”, says Tomás Pastor.
Niger got its independence in 1960. As a former French colony, many ties, mainly economic, remain between them. Areva is one of the largest uranium producers in the world and is 87% owned by the French government. It has extracted about 140,000 tonnes of uranium since 1970. Uranium represented 70.8% of the country’s exports in 2010, and only 5.8% of its GDP.
“Niger’s uranium is essential for France’s energy production”, adds Tomás. France uses this uranium to generate nuclear power and also some of it is sold to other European countries. Moreover, according to Oxfam, over one-third of all lamps in France light up thanks to uranium from Niger.
Tomás Pastor adds that, “the USA and recently China, are also playing an important role in the mining of the country. All of them have their own interest and want to control the natural resources of the country”.
What really counts
When the EU closes a gate, immigrants open a window. Restricting irregular migration will not lead to a reduction in migration efforts, but rather will force migrants to resort to taking more dangerous routes. The United Nations estimates that the number of deaths in the Sahara Desert is at least double those who die in the Mediterranean.
“The EU has to understand that there are always going to be migration movements,” says Dr. Vicente Zapata. “For that reason, we need a cooperation policy, not just with resources but also with good ideas, having immigrants taking part in them. If Africa does well, Europe will do well. Africa has to be an opportunity for us”.
By their part, Gerardo Mesa and Tomás Pastor agree that European embassies working in the countries facilitating legal migration could be the best support for those who want or need to migrate.
For Gerardo Mesa, “there is no difference from those who are fleeing from war, as a refugee, of those who are fleeing from poverty, as an immigrant. Both need our help”. Tomás Pastor asks, “What are we going to prohibit? How is the EU going to prohibit people from crossing the desert and taking a boat?”
Africans are ceasing to arrive in the Canaries and Niger. Agadez`s economy is shutting down. The EU’s funding is building the highest barriers. The uranium revenues are turning on French lightbulbs.