The Borders of Shame for the Migrants Community

Spotlight Migration and COVID-19: A case study from Niger and Lybia.

Virus Outbreak Border Limbo

Image: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Tayeb Saleh This March 22, 2020 provided by migrant Tayeb Saleh, shows fellow migrants standing in the sand while they await help getting out in the Libyan Sahara near the border with Sudan. The Kufra detention center in southern Libya has accelerated expulsions of migrants during the coronavirus pandemic to Sudan and Chad. The drive under the harsh Sahara sun takes three to four days in open-air trucks, which often break down in the soft sand.

Africa’s relationship with human rights abuses of migrants and refugees while in transit, and in host countries is complex and divided. The continent is the site of human rights violations, such as trafficking, economic and sexual exploitations, xenophobic attacks, and racial and gender discrimination. At the same time, Africa has a strong history of migration, being home to the majority of African international migrants and displaced persons, hosting 25.2m of the world’s 70.8m displaced persons. The African Union and its Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have embraced migration at policy level, with policies such as the Abuja Treaty (1991), Migration Policy Framework, the African Common Position on Migration and Development (2006), and the Agenda 2063 ten-year implementation plan strengthening the free movement of people and migration, refugee and human trafficking management.

For longer distance migration flows, Africa is the continent of origin for mixed migration flows to Europe. The European Union, itself having embraced the freedom of movement for citizens from its member states 30 years ago, has increasingly made Africa the playground of its migration policy efforts to reduce arrivals from Africa. These efforts often aim to secure those African borders that Africa’s policy efforts seek to open through binding instruments, such as (i) Migration Policy Framework for Africa (2006); (ii) The African Common Position on Migration and Development (2006); (iii) AU Commission Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) Campaign (2009); and (iv) the AU Free Movement Protocol (2018).

This tension between external policy pressure and internal policy development in a context of political instability and economic fragility can be illustrated by looking at this article’s case-study: the Libya-Niger border. Situated in the Sahara Desert the mixed migration flow trying to cross is exposed to extraordinary risks, including the risky journey through the desert, indefinite detention in Libya, and exploitation and abuse by smugglers. The border, despite its remote location, is also part of EU-funded projects looking to strengthen border management and security in the Sahel region, Niger and Libya and the border in particular.

Irregular migration transiting through the Sahara

After a peak of 181 459 migrants arriving in Italy using the perilous Central Mediterranean Route in 2016, Frontex data suggests the route rapidly decreased to only 13 760 arrivals in 2019. Despite Covid-19, however, 2020 has seen a rise a in arrivals with 28 424, more than doubling the previous year’s crossings. The number of migrants intercepted off the Libyan coast is less well documented, but UNHCR reports close to 10 000 migrants who were stopped in 2020 to date. The route is notoriously dangerous, with risks including making a journey through the Sahara Desert, indefinite detention in Libya, and capsizing at sea. Migration through Niger and into Libya to reach the Mediterranean Sea has been significant enough for European governments to scramble to slow down the movement. Meanwhile, the trans-Saharan migration has grown into a serious humanitarian situation, with people being smuggled across deadly routes, trapped in detention centers, or dying at sea.

The movement of West Africans through Niger and the Sahara to Libya is, however, a recent development. In the 2000s, President Muammar Gaddafi became an important partner of the European Union (EU) in its efforts to curb illegal migration transiting through Libya. With his departure from power in 2011 and the ensuing chaos in Libya, many migrants saw an opening in their quest to reach Europe, and the number of sub-Saharan Africans transiting grew significantly. This resulted in efforts by the EU, briefly mentioned above, to encourage and support Niger to prevent irregular migration through strengthening border security. These efforts, however, have not had the expected outcomes, and “human smuggling [in Niger] in part of a state-sponsored protection racker, which has proved extremely resilient” in part due to the fact that “human mobility enjoys a high degree of social legitimacy.”

COVID-19 and the Niger-Libya border

The year preceding the COVID-19 pandemic had shown how the EU’s efforts to reduce mixed migration flows through Niger were based on a false premise: the Niger shared the EU’s interest in curbing irregular migration. The focus on Agadez, a smuggling hub in the Sahara Desert, is a prime example of the EU’s failure to predicate interventions to reduce migration on a complex understanding and grasp of local dynamics. These local dynamics, even though built around the smuggling across international borders, is central to the Sahel’s political economy and the movement between Niger and southern Libya, that is, crossing the border, seems to be a complex network that, broadly speaking, stabilizes the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a situation that disrupted the resilient smuggling networks. It has provided a glimpse at what might be considered the logical conclusion of the EU’s policy trajectory: a heavily patrolled and closed border. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Niger, as part of a state of emergency, closed its borders, including the border with Libya, and restricted local travel to and from Niamey, the capital.

As a result of the closure, reinforced surveillance and patrols along the border, and blocked roads, migrant flows slowed down and hundreds of people from Gambia, Senegal, Mali determined to transit through Niger to Libya were left stranded.

On the Libyan side, patrols increased, and soldiers became more vigilant to prevent movement of migrants across the closed border. Many checkpoints were established to control migrants coming to Niger border communities like Dirkou and Madama in hopes of entering Libya. Despite these measures, some migrants have managed to continued their movement, but there is growing evidence that West Africans have also shifted movement in recent months, including a new route to the Canary Islands.

These migrants that fail in crossing the Sahara to Libya are intercepted by military patrols and jailed or deported back to Niger and then their respective countries. AFP reported in May 2020 that in less than two months, more than 300 migrants have been caught by Niger’s army along the border with Libya. During the same period, it was reported that around 60 vehicles transporting migrants managed to enter Libya, only to be detained by Libyan border guards. Yet other migrants and smugglers are reportedly turned back into the Sahara, only to be assisted by agencies such as the International Organization of Migration (IOM) which has reported over 1,600 migrants who were stranded in the desert since borders were closed at the end of March.

The Niger-Libya border during the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a warning against the continuation of the EU’s migration policy, highlighting how long, nuanced histories of mobility, interwoven with more recent political economies, cannot be ‘overruled’ by efforts to curb movement.


This article began with highlighting Africa’s policy milestones towards promoting the free movement of people. The Niger-Libya border was considered an example of how COVID-19’s impact on migration in Africa, significantly aggravating risks and vulnerabilities of migrants as a result of the securitization, militarization and closures of borders, has brought into relief a fundamental difference in migration policy attitudes between Africa and Europe. Whereas Europe, in the 1980s and 90s worked towards open borders and free movement of people as an outcome of stability to promote the movement of people, Africa is developing free movement policies in recognition of the fact that the preexisting mobility of its people are a source for stability, not its outcome. The sudden surge in security along closed borders in Africa is an inadvertent glimpse at the logical conclusion of those aspects of the EU’s migration policy that focus on preventing irregular movement to Europe by linking that suppression of movement with building stability, failing to understand the above difference: the result has often been to the detriment of migrants’ rights and lives.

For the African Union, the RECs and national governments to effectively build African migration policies, attuned to local dynamics and resilient to shocks like a global pandemic, the European Union must support the continent’s efforts to strengthen free movement to use it to develop political stability and economic power.


The above observations allow for some key recommendations:

  1. Policy makers, whether African or European, should guarantee the interests of African migrants and refugees whether they are in or outside the continent;
  2. Promote, support and strengthen African migration policies and foreground them in any inter-continental cooperation to recognize that they are built on a better understanding of key dynamics.
  3. For African countries to stop all initiatives to militarize borders and criminalize migrants in respect of all legal instruments and policy engagements of states;
  4. Recognize the right to movement and mobility for Africans in manner similar to Europeans to ensure that migrants are no longer “illegal”;
  5. For countries to take measures to stop migrant detention as a means to strengthen double denial of rights, depriving them of their movement and freedom.  Detentions can be indefinite and with little monitoring to ensure access to health care and education;
  6. All recommendations include reference to the elimination of all forms of discrimination, racism and xenophobia. This is an especially necessary area where more work and focus is needed. In this particular political period, with rising right-wing extremists in Europe, and overall anti-immigrant sentiments, more commitment is needed from all to counter this trend;
  7. Take political measures to stop forced, or ‘coerced’ returns of migrants mainly in this pandemic periods. The Compact recommends that States should "cooperate in facilitating dignified and sustainable return, readmission and reintegration" and many African counties have already implemented taking in forcibly returned migrants as part of bilateral agreements with various European countries.  



Mamadou GOÏTA is a development Socio-Economist and specialist in education and training systems, a researcher and teacher from Mali. He is the Executive Director of IRPAD/Afrique (Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development) and worked in past for UNICEF, UNDP, OXFAM-Belgium and ACORD. He is a founding member and chair of the Pan-African Network in the Defence of Migrants’ Rights-(PANiDMR) -a founding and board member of the Global Coalition on Migration.

This article is part of a series of articles by the Global Coalition on Migration and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on international migration during the COVID-19 pandemic. they analyse the impact of the pandemic on international migrants protection highlighting the various human rights instruments, international law, the global compact and treaties that protect the rights of migrants. The articles focus on various topics such as; gender, labor, regularization,race, xenophobia, security, borders, access to services and detention.



Events, projects, analyzes and background information:

  • Displacement: Worldwide, more people are leaving their countries of origin than ever before.
  • Migration: Migration is to be expected in an interconnected and globalized world.
  • Integration: How do we want to live together in a diverse society with peace, safety and equal participation for all?

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