The situation in the face of the Corona crisis also produces new challenges and plights for people on the flight- and migration routes in Niger, as borders are shut down and a signifficant number of people remain blocked at IOM and UNHCR camps and transit centres.
Migrants arrested at the Niger-Libya border and brought back to Agadez
On 2nd of April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that more than 250 migrants had been abandoned by their smugglers in the middle of the desert on the border between Niger and Libya. According to IOM, after providing them with food and water, the migrants were transferred to a football stadium in Agadez for a 14-day quarantine period as the Corona virus is spreading in Niger.
Migrants "abandonned by their smugglers" according to IOM, but intercepted by security forces according to Alarme Phone Sahara whistleblowers
Reports from Alarme Phone Sahara's whistleblowers somehow show a different picture of what is happening in the border area: According to them, the migrants were on their way to Libya, but were denied access to the Libyan territory by the Libyan security services because of the health measures against the corona virus. Back on the territory of Niger, they had tried to get back to Libya, but elements of the Niger security forces intercepted them and brought them back to Dirkou, Bilma department. The vehicles transporting the migrants were stopped at the Dirkou police station and the 11 drivers arrested in custody for an unknown period of time.
It was confirmed that the passengers were transferred to Agadez, but the conditions under which they were transported and accommodated since then remain to be clarified.
In any case, the question arises as to why IOM, in its account of events, blames the smugglers for abandoning the people in the desert, when according to reports from Alarme Phone Sahara's whistleblowers, the migrants were instead arrested by the security forces and brought back by force. And in how far does this IOM story fit in with a political agenda that seeks to criminalize so-called "irregular" migration instead of defending the rights of people on migration routes?
Escape of migrants confined to Agadez football stadium
According to Aïr Info Agadez, on 10th of April 2020, forty-three people among the 250 migrants who have been confined for a week at the Sidi Mohamed regional stadium in Agadez fled the site. They were among the people who were expelled from the Libyan border at the beginning of April before being transported to Dirkou and then to Agadez by the IOM.
It remains to be seen what were the concrete reasons why the migrants decided to flee. Nevertheless, the flight of 43 people gives a strong impression that the confinement in Agadez stadium of the people turned back from the border area is taking place in conditions of lack of transparency and lack of respect for their rights. Even if a quarantine measure may be necessary at the time of the threat of a pandemic, such measures should be carried out in a respectful, transparent and comprehensible manner and in cooperation with the people concerned, not against them. Otherwise, as this leak shows, there is an increased risk that the measures necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will fail due to the lack of involvement of the persons concerned.
Migrants returned from Algeria, after being confined to Assamaka, now suffering with uncertain prospects.
Alarme Phone Sahara's whistleblowers report that since 19th of March 2020, at least 667 migrants expelled from Algeria were stranded in Assamaka and isolated in the IOM hangar, where they had to spend a two-week quarantine on the basis of the regulations to prevent the spread of the Corona virus.
Upon arrival on 19th of March, the deported persons, as usual in these cases, were dropped off at "point zero" in the desert at the Algerian-Nigerian border to walk to Assamaka on foot. According to the available figures, the deportation convoy included 291 citizens of Niger, 24 Cameroonians, 27 Ivorians, 140 Malians, 19 Nigerians, 101 citizens of Guinea-Conakry, 13 Sierra Leoneans, 17 Gambians, 11 Senegalese, 3 Togolese, 5 Sudanese, 2 Liberians, 4 Ghanaians, 5 Beninese and 5 Burkinabè. Apart from citizens of Niger, those from Mali and Guinea-Conakry were by far the largest groups of people deported, a trend that has been observed for some time in the deportations from Algeria.
According to the information available to date, after the end of the two-week quarantine, the deportees were taken to Arlit and Agadez by IOM.
This remains to be clarified: In what kind of accommodation have the deported persons been accommodated, under what conditions are they currently living, at what level is their health protected against the risks imposed by Covid-19 and at what level are their rights respected or not?
Galius Moumouni Efouad, a Ghanaian man who was among the group of people expelled from Algeria, confined to Assamaka and is now at the IOM transit centre in Arlit, stressed in his testimony before Tcherno Abarchi, Alarme Phone Sahara's whistleblower:
"Now we don't have anything for ourselves, all of us are suffering in fact. We don't know what we are going to do now. We need support for everywhere we go now, because they took away all our money, it was a lot they took from us. They steal everything from us in Algeria, especially the police."
For Alarme Phone Sahara and for all those who defend the rights of migrants and human and social rights in Sahelo-Saharan countries, the current situation poses new challenges at all levels: How are the rights of migrants and refugees respected or violated in the face of the Corona crisis? Is there any kind of effective protection against the spread of the Corona virus for refugees and migrants who are trapped in IOM and UNHCR camps and transit centres? What does the current strengthening of border closures between African states in the wake of the Corona crisis mean on the long run for the struggle for the right to freedom of movement? And what will be the consequences if the Corona virus spreads on a large scale in Niger and other Sahelian countries - countries where the socio-economic situation of the population is already precarious and public health systems are already fragile, underfunded and ill-equipped?