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From the Field

Arrests of People Smugglers in Niger: A Criminalization of Mutual-Aid Practices in Migration Situations

From the point of view of the Northern states, international migration from the South now has its designated leaders, the networks of "smugglers", which should be dismantled. Based on an ethnographic survey conducted in Niger, the author shows the lability of this role and the perverse effects of a blind repression of mutual aid.

Long ignored by European migration policies, Niger has emerged in official discourse as a transit country for West African populations heading for Europe since 2015 and the Valletta Euro-African Summit. [1] This summit marks a new stage in the control of mobility in the Sahara-Sahel region with the active involvement of the Nigerien state, which at the same time adopted law 2015-36 against what is described as "illicit trafficking in migrants". [2]

The country has long been a staging area for people moving from one side of the Sahara to the other. With the law against migrant smuggling, the networks facilitating migration have been partly dismantled. While its economic impact on the city of Agadez in northern Niger has already been demonstrated (Zandonini 2018, Hoffman, Meester, and Nabara 2017), the arrests of "ordinary" smugglers (i.e., also in migration situations) and their effects on mutual aid practices remain poorly documented.

In line with studies on smugglers (Zhang, Sanchez, and Achili 2018, Doomernik and Kyle 2004), we show that the 2015 law tends to increase distress for people in migration situations, exposing them more to imprisonment and new forms of exploitation. [3]

The complex construction of the figure of the "ferryman" in a space of transit

In 2013, the macabre discovery in the desert of the bodies of Nigerien women and children who were on their way to Algeria aroused strong emotions among the population. [4]. Regional elected officials, parliamentarians and ministers are speaking out against "clandestine" migration and its logistics in the Agadez region. This city in the north of the country acts as a crossroads for West and Central African nationals who leave to work in the north (see figure 1). These mobilities are long-standing and circular (Brachet, Choplin, and Pliez 2011; Mounkaila, Amadou, and Boyer 2009). They are facilitated by the free movement protocol adopted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1979.

Figure 1. The elasticity of Niger’s northern border: controlling the right to leave

Map by C. Pestalozza and A. Dauchy.

Before 2015, the economic activity of the city of Agadez was largely based on the reception of migrants, preparations before crossing the desert and transport to Algeria and Libya. The logistics of migration mobilized a range of individuals and groups with different functions and responsibilities: couriers and transporters, but also hosts, recruiters and traders. [5] These small intermediaries make up the ordinary work of migration. The 2015 law, by penalizing the illicit trafficking of migrants, puts an end to all such activities.

This law against migrant smuggling is in addition to the existing legal framework against human trafficking, [6] the law creates a new offense based on three elements: obtaining a financial or material benefit (e.g., a fraudulent travel document) or a service rendered indirectly (1), in exchange for the illegal entry, stay, or exit (2) of a foreigner who is not a permanent resident of Niger (3). The application of the 2015 law therefore extends to a whole series of actors involved in the migration economy, since any person who derives an economic or other benefit from assisting migrants is recognized as a "smuggler.

The 2015 law is based on a founding text, the Palermo Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which links irregular migration to other trafficking (drugs and arms) due to their transnational nature.

In this respect, the daily work of the judicial police officers and magistrates who apply Law 2015-36 consists of identifying and dismantling Nigerien networks, pursuing individuals who act at the different levels of the criminal organization (interview with the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), Niamey, March 2020), along the clandestine routes where these traffics operate.

As a result, migrants are themselves prosecuted when, lacking sufficient means to continue their journey, they participate in this migration economy. Many "adventurers," a term used by migrants to describe their movement practices in West Africa (Louis 2013), are indeed stranded in Agadez or elsewhere on the migration routes, for several weeks or even months, waiting for help from their families or looking for work. The travelers, thus immobilized, gather in what they call "ghettos", precarious accommodations rented from Nigerien landlords. There they welcome other brothers, who pass through Agadez, compatriots who get their contact in the country before their departure or during the trip because they come from the same area. [7] Because they facilitate migration by providing housing for other foreigners, driving them from the bus station to the "ghetto," or acting as intermediaries with transporters to get to Libya or Algeria, they are sometimes arrested in Agadez. In front of the judges and the investigator, those arrested do not deny the facts, which they nevertheless recharacterize as mutual aid:

They came to the prosecutor’s office and accused me of smuggling migrants, they said "he helps people to travel". I said "OK", in any case, I help them because we help each other, all of us. But I didn’t bring anyone, I didn’t look for anyone (interview in Niamey prison, February 2020).

These practices contribute to the success of the "adventurers’" (Louis 2013) migratory journey, whether they are on one side or the other of the provision. For one, you have to find something because if the parents don’t have the means, you don’t pass (interviews in Niamey prison, February 2020). From then on, the defendants used their experience and knowledge to benefit the circulation of other individuals, who could then use them in turn.

Stemming mobility by moving the country’s border to Agadez

The 2015 law is being implemented first in the Agadez region, before its application is extended to the rest of the country. In this northern region, an imaginary line seems to divide the country in two, although it is not recognized at the highest level: on the one hand, in the south, an authorized but controlled area of movement for ECOWAS nationals and other foreigners with the required travel documents [8]; on the other side of this line, to the north, any foreigner is presumed to be going to Libya or Algeria, and his or her carrier will be prosecuted under the terms of article 10 of the anti-trafficking law, which provides for "illegal exit" from Niger.

As applied since 2016, the law not only punishes the illegal crossing of a border but also the intention to leave illegally, as long as this intention can be demonstrated. Any foreigner controlled north of Agadez is thus assumed to be migrating.

The elasticity of the border, which stretches to the city of Agadez, is justified by a practical argument, namely the impossibility for the authorities to effectively control the Libyan border. This imaginary line not only creates a regime of exception in the north, but also has a cascading effect on the daily lives of migrants in the city of Agadez itself: by law, all foreigners are forbidden to get into one of the pickups that bring Nigeriens to the north and Libya every week. The authorities and European experts justify this differential treatment between the Nigerian population and West African nationals in terms of their presumed destination: the Nigerians would remain in Libya while the other populations would seek to reach Europe.

As a result, opportunities to leave for the north have become fewer and more expensive. Since the implementation of the 2015 law, would-be migrants are forced to be discreet during their stay in Agadez: you don’t go out because you don’t want to be seen, because if you are more than two foreigners, you are guilty! (interview in Agadez prison, February 2020).

Arrests are facilitated by the presence of informants in the train stations who provide information to the police, by denunciations from the neighborhood or by the heads of the "ghettos" among themselves. These practices fuel a climate of psychosis, with waves of raids being attributed by the targeted individuals to Nigerien or even European authorities (interviews in Agadez, February 2020). NGOs must also conform to this deleterious climate of generalized suspicion, and cunningly continue to carry out their missions with migrants. Intervention in the "ghettos" is more delicate, as there is a significant risk of being refused entry to the houses and of no longer being able to provide care and basic necessities (participant observation in Agadez, February 2020).

The many individuals now suspected of being smugglers recount the humiliation of public arrests, the counterterrorism-inspired modus operandi of house searches by soldiers, the interrogations and various forms of violence they endure, and the obstacles they face in notifying their relatives of their arrest. In addition, they are not immune to the congestion and inefficiency of the Nigerien judicial system (Hamani 2014). Many defendants report lost files, vanished witnesses, and, lacking the means to access a lawyer, frequently spend several years in detention before being tried.

Finally, smugglers’ perception of migration work differs radically from that of the state and international institutions, which view it as a criminal activity, in favor of organized and pyramidal structures. While these practices exist, this contribution focuses on another, lesser-known reality of migration, that of "ordinary" smugglers: far from an absolute division of roles, people in a migration situation in Niger are often led to help other migrants, thus becoming "smugglers" in the eyes of the Nigerien authorities and international institutions. In this context, the law against illicit trafficking creates the conditions for invisibilization and criminalization of foreigners and, in so doing, for a reorientation of migration routes. Since then, there has been a decrease in the number of people transiting through Agadez, which they bypass in order to avoid the new risks associated with their criminally reprehensible condition.

While a context of free movement makes people more autonomous in their movements (Kyle and Dale 2001), the strengthening of border controls and the repression of mutual aid force them to rely more on the assistance of new intermediaries, in a clandestine manner. This situation increases the vulnerability of migrants by forcing them to seek out new networks that are no longer based on ties of trust and proximity.


  • Brachet, J., Choplin, A. and Pliez, O. 2011. « Le Sahara entre espace de circulation et frontière migratoire de l’Europe », Hérodote, vol. 3, n° 142, p. 163-182.
  • Doomernik, J. and Kyle, D.J. 2004. « Organized migrant smuggling and state control: conceptual and policy challenges », Special Issue of Journal of International Migration and Integration, vol. 3, n° 5, p. 93-102.
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  • Zandonini, G. 2018. « The Monday that changed migration in Niger », Open Migration.
  • Zhang, S.X., Sanchez, G.E., Achilli, L. 2018. « Crimes of solidarity in mobility: Alternative views on migrant smuggling », The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 1, n° 676, p. 6-15.
Article translated with the support of the Luxembourg National Research Fund: C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV • Traduction soutenue par le Fonds national de la recherche, Luxembourg : C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV

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To cite this article:

Alizée Dauchy & translated by Oliver Waine, “Arrests of People Smugglers in Niger: A Criminalization of Mutual-Aid Practices in Migration Situations”, Metropolitics, 8 July 2022. URL :

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