Saharan Crossing: Galya Ben-Arieh on The Realities of Migration Today

aGJ2naufIn conjunction with the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, the Block Museum is pleased to partner with leaders from around the University.  Galya Ben-Arieh is professor of instruction in political science. Her research centers on the rights and processes of refugee protection and the role of law in settlement and inclusion in host societies and comparative constitutional theory and transformation. The scholar offers crucial background on the exhibition’s contemporary connections:

The exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa at the Block Museum of Art shows the global impact of Saharan trade. In the medieval period the widespread demand for West African gold contributed to the circulation of goods, people, and ideas across entwined networks of exchange in West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Migrants journeying from Africa to Europe today travel along the same routes and stop in the same transit cities as the medieval caravans, but their journeys point to a disjuncture between modern Saharan migration systems and the logics of historical mobility and systems of exchange.

The city of Agadez, founded according to some accounts as early as the 11th century and now the largest city in Niger, can help us understand the contemporary geopolitics of migration and the realities of passage through and within the Sahara. Hubs such as Agadez have occupied prominent positions over centuries of migration flows across the Sahara. More recently, European pressure on African countries to stop the flow has transformed Agadez into a transit city and an anchor destination for West Africans and Nigeriens.

European agreements and funding arrangements designed to curtail trans-Saharan mobility have constrained intraregional Saharan migration. Even as supranational frameworks such as the travel certificate of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have facilitated the free movement of labor in West Africa and the central Sahara, migration within West Africa since the late 1990s has become increasingly contained. Myriad agreements and transnational policies ratified since then have reinforced African borders and closed off sea routes to Europe and port cities in North Africa, creating new realities for Agadez and other medieval caravan hubs.

“Migrant stories reveal that migration and mobility are not exceptional solutions to a crisis but rather longstanding requirements of Saharan life.”

Historically in the Sahara, survival depended on exchange, which was fragile and unstable; that is still the case. The migrant stories collected in Agadez by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveal that migration and mobility are not exceptional solutions to a crisis but rather longstanding requirements of Saharan life. Many Nigeriens either work for several years in Algeria or Libya and then return or else travel for short journeys to buy merchandise and transport it back to Niger. There are Nigerien workers returning from Algeria as deportees per the agreement between the two countries, or from Libya in view of the current political climate. There are ECOWAS migrants returning to their place of origin (Mali, Gambia, Cameroon, Chad, or Senegal, but also Nigeria or Liberia to a lesser extent) who either worked in Libya until the current situation impelled them to leave or failed in their attempts to get to Europe. There are also economic ECOWAS migrants (mainly from Senegal, Mali, and Chad) coming to Niger, particularly the Aïr region, to work in the mineral mines of Djado and Irefouane (gold) as well as Arlit (uranium) and Tchirozerine (coal). Ultimately, although the decision to migrate does have economic drivers, it is increasingly facilitated by social media rather than made solely on the basis of costs and benefits.

In spite of strong regional institutional frameworks that facilitate migration, local populations in the Sahara have found their movement and economic opportunities restricted as African countries have agreed to border controls and deportations in exchange for development aid from the European Union. According to Loren B. Landau (see, the EU has undermined migratory opportunities through a partnership with the International Organization for Migration and bilateral agreements with countries such as Niger, Ethiopia, and Mali, which are receiving $90 million to prevent refugees and migrants from crossing the Sahara. The EU pursues these policies instead of respecting human rights and acknowledging the legality of United Nations conventions and the obligations of Central Saharan governments in several supranational institutional frameworks concerned with migration.

What these policies miss is that an estimated 90 percent of West Africa’s 8.4 million migrants originate from ECOWAS countries, highlighting the intraregional nature of much of the area’s movement and making it the area with the highest mobility in the African continent (see /wp-content/uploads/2017/08/IOM-The-economic-impact -of-migration-in-Agadez.pdf). The European prioritization of combating “illegal migration” has since brought profound changes to ECOWAS policy on free movement, such that ECOWAS now works to control migration directed beyond its territory. In January 2008, when ECOWAS heads of state adopted a “common approach on migration” (see unhcr .org/49e47c8f11.pdf) to improve intraregional migration and migration to Europe, irregular migration in the Sahara became, for the first time in history, a political issue influenced by European assumptions about West African migration and a bargaining chip with the European Union rather than a factor of development. As a result, in cities such as Agadez, West African elites are at odds with local governments over economic development policies.

Agadez has become an experiment in migration control and management, as organizations such as IOM seek to determine what drives migration and who the actors are. Policy reports and projects on migration from Africa to Europe mention the importance of “securing” Agadez, and international organizations and nongovernmental organizations specializing in global migration management have opened permanent local offices, including a transit and assistance center in 2014 and a migrant information office in 2016, both run by IOM.

The new landscape has transformed Nigerian migration policies. Whereas before there was no policing, since 2016 Agadez-based organizers of Saharan migration have been arrested and sentenced to prison for years, accused of human smuggling. (Until then, the country had not criminalized smuggling, and nobody within the national territory was considered a smuggler.) The result is that individuals now identified as smugglers are bypassing Agadez, finding new and more difficult routes to bypass checkpoints, thereby exposing migrants to even more risk and harm. There has been an increase in migrant deaths; even more troubling, more of the deaths go uncounted and unreported. Even as Caravans of Gold highlights historical Saharan migration, the current reality in the region increasingly arouses concern.

Republished with generous permission from The Program of African Studies Winter 2019 Newsletter

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