In some months, the temperature in the Nigerien desert of Ténéré climbs to over fifty degrees. In this part of the Sahara, there are no trees, no bushes, nothing to provide shade. The desert is unforgiving.
I grew up there, in Tin Telloust, a village near the border with Algeria and Libya. I still remember a saying from my childhood: If you go into the desert, you can’t worry about the weight of the water. Because, the fact is, without water you simply won’t survive.
I find it hard to put into words what the desert meant to me as a child. Despite all the danger, we knew how to move in this environment and were able to appreciate this landscape’s unique beauty. But what was once my home has changed drastically over the years. The vast expanses of sand that were once so familiar to me have been transformed into a ghostly landscape, a heartbreaking memorial to the countless people who have lost their lives there. Today I see the Ténéré as a cemetery.
“Despite all the danger, we knew how to move in this environment and were able to appreciate this landscape’s unique beauty”
The fact that my perception has changed has to do with my work as a political geographer. I am currently doing my doctorate at the Universities of Grenoble Alpes in France and Abdou Moumouni in Niamey in Niger on EU migration policy and how it affects Niger. In recent years, Niger has become the country in which the most migrants have gone missing.
Since 2014, the Missing Migrants Project has registered 1,329 people who have died trying to cross the Sahara. A total of 1,092 of these cases occurred along the trans-Saharan routes in Niger. Realistically, however, the actual number is many times higher, as not all bodies are found in the desert. For this reason, I worked on an investigative research project for the NGO Border Forensics in 2023.
Historically, Niger has always been a transit country. The major trans-Saharan trade routes passed through the city of Agadez and what we call circular migration was widespread: Traditionally, many people moved from West Africa or sub-Saharan Africa through Niger to Libya or Algeria in search of work and later returned. Before 2015, there was no law in Niger that prohibited migration movements of this kind. Regardless of their nationality, migrants were able to move relatively freely and safely.
“The vast expanses of sand have been transformed into a heartbreaking memorial to the countless people who have lost their lives there”
However, in 2013, the ongoing conflicts in Mali and Nigeria led to many people fleeing. Niger was relatively politically stable at this time and therefore became the destination of their flight. In 2013, tragedy struck when a large group of migrants died in the desert on the Niger-Algerian border – most of them women and children.
This incident caused horror and outrage in Niger – and a new government narrative: From then on, the “traffickers” were identified as the culprits. At the same time, the government lacked the money to take real political action. From 2015, however, the European Union was also confronted with the so-called refugee crisis - which I would describe as a geopolitical crisis – and suddenly had a great interest in supporting African states in containing and controlling migration.
On 26 May 2015, the Nigerien parliament passed Law No. 2015-36, which was supposed to represent a new era in dealing with migration. Drafted with financial support from EU member states, the law is very repressive: anyone offering migration services in the areas of transport, mediation or accommodation has been criminalised ever since.
“The official numbers of migrants quickly fell. In reality, however, migration continued: It just shifted away from the safe routes”
Together with Border Forensics, I wanted to document the deadly consequences of this more stringent law. To this end, we investigated key locations along the most frequently used route from Agadez in Niger to Sebha in Libya: Dirkou, Séguédine, Madama and Toummo. We used remote sensing methods and satellite data for our empirical study.
It revealed that military and security activities in the region have increased significantly. Before Law No. 2015-36 came into force, migrants – like all other people - were able to travel north from Agadez as part of a military convoy on the main routes.
On this road, they have access to wells and are relatively safe from attacks by bandits because of the soldiers. As a result of the new law, however, offering transport to migrants became a criminal offence. Anyone who violated the law was threatened with draconian penalties, including imprisonment.
From then on, anyone travelling on these routes was checked at new checkpoints, customs posts and military posts. The official numbers of migrants quickly fell - and European partners celebrated the law as a success. In reality, however, migration continued: It just shifted away from the safe routes.
„The migration policy of the Nigerien government and its European partners turns the desert into a weapon that kills – without anyone having to actively pull the trigger“
Our satellite-based evidence backed this up: Our images show that migrants in Niger are increasingly taking dangerous desert routes. If a car breaks down there or the water runs out, there is hardly any chance of people getting help. This means more and more people are dying or disappearing without a trace.
In the course of my scientific work, it became increasingly clear that the Nigerien government and its European partners are using the Sahara as a strategic deterrent. Their migration policy effectively turns the desert into a weapon that kills without anyone having to actively pull the trigger.
Can this reality be reversed? A first step was taken in November 2023, when the Nigerien government repealed the controversial law. Since then, migrants have been able to move around more freely again. This, however, is only the beginning: International migration policy needs to be fundamentally rethought.
The freedom to move across borders in a self-determined way is very unequally apportioned around the world. Only when this injustice changes will I be able to feel truly at home in my home country again. I look forward to a time when I no longer have to view the Ténéré as a cemetery. I still hope that I will one day be able to see it as what it was in my childhood: a hub of diverse, safe and humane migration routes.