The central city of Agadez has long been a common stopover for migrants and refugees passing through the country. Many, however, have recently chosen to remain there for the time being.
The mayor of Agadez, Rhissa Feltou, says that there has been a major surge of Sudanese nationals coming to Agadez lately, "but also other countries where I don't have enough information to go into detail about nationalities and numbers."
In addition to their numbers, there have also been changes in the demographic profiles of migrants and refugees passing through Agadez.
"We have had an increase in the numbers of Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees coming from Libya to Agadez. All of them say that they've been experiencing situations of extreme violence there," Louise Donovan, a field officer working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Niger, told InfoMigrants.
Reports of slavery and torture surfacing in Libya in recent months have led thousands of African refugees to seek a way out of the beleaguered North African nation, with many heading straight to Niger. Bordering Libya to the north, Nigeria to the south and Mali to the West, the desert nation is considered to be the safest country in the region at large.
"They left Libya because they were being tortured, because they've been sold on multiple occasions, and because they were being persecuted. And they came to Niger and not to another country because it's the closest safe country. They're aware of the fact that we have refugee camps with other refugees here, and for most of them it's really about the peace and security here," Donavan explained.
From Asia to Agadez
Seeing foreign faces in Agadez is not exactly news; the city has long been a hub for migrants and refugees from across Africa, with the boundaries of human trafficking and voluntary migration often blurring in the central Nigerien city.
Recently, however, there have been reports of sightings of foreigners with other nationalities coming from far outside of Africa as well – many of whom are said to apparently have come to Niger following false reports stating that they could secure a safe passage to Europe from there.
"I have been told by local authorities that among the recent surge in migrants in Agadez, there are many people from Afghanistan, people from Sudan, from Chad and many other nationalities," locally-based DW journalist Tilla Amadou told InfoMigrants.
"And the locals feel that they don't understand why these people from far away places are here, and how they got here to begin with. But they certainly are here; you can spot them on the streets. Some are even part of the local economy, selling mobile phones and other things," Amadou said.
There's another trend that has been reported from the streets of Agadez: some of the new wave of migrants and refugees coming to Niger are believed to have come having heard false rumors of legally being granted safe passage to Europe from the Nigerien city.
The UNHCR's Louise Donovan believes that such gossip does indeed drive some of the migration patterns observed in Niger: "There's a huge amount of word-of-mouth. Most people have a mobile phone now; you can easily get onto the internet and read all kinds of things. So some people have indeed told us that they heard of this gossip, but by far not everybody."
One of these false rumors states that the UNHCR was trying to address the migration crisis across Africa by moving people indiscriminately from Agadez to Europe.
One-way ticket to Europe?
Donovan stresses that it is part of her job to try to dispel such myths and set the record straight. When asked where she thinks these rumors might originate, she explains that genuine information often gets distorted as it is passed on, until it starts to roll out of control:
"Basically, this is what happened: the UNHCR are doing an evacuation program called ETM, the Emergency Transit Mechanism, from Libya. This is for extremely vulnerable refugees who are trapped in detention centers in Libya. As part of this program, we've been trying out evacuation flights from there to Niger on a temporary basis to look for solutions. Resettlement is obviously one of those solutions, and we've been working with various governments, with the French government in particular, to find resettlement places for these people.
"There are some people of course who, when they read on the media that people are being resettled from Niger, assume that they can have the same thing. But this is a specific program addressing a specific problem; we're evacuating people [from Libya]; we're not resettling all of the asylum seekers in Niger. We certainly wouldn't have the capacities for anything like that, let alone the right."
Mayor Feltou agrees that these kinds of rumors, originating from misunderstood and miscommunicated reports, echo throughout Agadez.
"Since the [UNHCR] office was launched, there have been people of many nationalities attracted to coming here because of their facilities and services, which they can access with ease in Agadez, all the while hoping to somehow eventually establish refugee status here and use that to possibly get all the way to Europe. There are precedent cases where this has happened.
"France's decision to allow some people in as refugees is precisely what drives this surge of people of Sudanese background and other nationalities recently to come here and try their luck at getting refugee status. There are refugees and migrants from all sorts of countries that now come to Agadez because they think there's some brand of simplified procedure to apply for asylum."
Migrant vs. asylum seeker
But the UNHCR is already trying to do just that; as part of a recent initiative, the UN's refugee agency hopes to expedite the process of assessing their caseload of hundreds of thousands of refugees across Niger who are wishing to apply for asylum – and thus help to set them apart from migrants who may likely not be entitled to asylum status.
"We are working in identifying asylum seekers. We already have 55,000 Malian refugees in Niger, we have over 108,000 Nigerian refugees," Louise Donovan told InfoMigrants. It may, however, take a long time for all those applications to be properly assessed, as regional conflicts keep forcing people to flee to safer countries like Niger.
"And now at the moment we are also evacuating refugees from Libya, and the majority of those are Eritreans and Somalians. There really is no end in sight. However, we are also trying to look closely at the economic dynamic of some of the people who are claiming asylum and who may not be entitled to it. This might help in improving the situation in the refugee camps in the long run."
Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), thinks that most migrants in Niger, regardless of their background, will ultimately be forced out of the country.
"The vast majority of the people coming to Niger are economic migrants. They will be rejected. They have no hope of getting asylum," Doyle told InfoMigrants.
Doyle has been observing migration patterns for many years, and believes that the recent changes in Agadez' migrant and refugee population are a long-term symptom of the dynamic nature of human migration patterns, rather than solely the result of gossip and rumor.
"Some of these people have been migrants for years. I don't think any of them are going to believe for a second any kind of false news that the UNHCR is getting people a ticket to Europe. That's not what they do. And they know that."
Doyle told InfoMigrants that in many instances, the Asian nationals currently seen in Niger already have a long history of migration, and that being experienced in crossing multiple national borders, they aren't typically the kinds of migrants who would be driven by rumors and idle gossip.
"You will find that many of those with, say, Bangladeshi passports, actually have identity papers from living in Libya in the past. So they might be part of a group of economic migrants that left Libya after the fall of [former Libyan President Moammar] Gaddafi, and then later came back again. As far as we know, these are largely economic migrants," Doyle said.
He also believes that locals in Agadez need not worry about the prospect of a new migrant route being established that runs through Agadez.
"Niger is mostly a country of transit. People are transiting through there, trying to get elsewhere."
The ‘burden of migration'
Locals in Agadez, however, remain unsettled by the recent upsurge of refugees and migrants in their city, regardless of such expert opinions. Omar Kata, a local resident, told InfoMigrants that migrants arriving in Agadez are a "burden" for the impoverished city.
"There aren't sufficient infrastructures in place for locals to begin with, such as hospitals and sanitary facilities. There just aren't enough public services to begin with. Do you think there will be adequate infrastructures then to accommodate all these migrants?" Kata said.
Moussa Abara, another local resident, says that the city was already overwhelmed with internal migration from within Niger – notably with people coming from the south of the country to the capital to seek economic opportunities.
"And now, there are all these migrants from Libya, Sudan and elsewhere, who come here or travel through here. We don't know what they want to do here. We don't know their intentions. The UNHCR should really take stock of how many migrants there are in Agadez."
Abara believes the only solution is deportation. "I think that the migrants that arrive here should automatically be sent back to their native countries. If we wish to help them, we should help them in their own countries, not here in Agadez."
Mayor Rhissa Feltou warns that all the aid going towards the care of migrants and refugees in Agadez is making the local population turn against them.
"The problem is that there relationship between locals and foreigners just isn't good. They receive help, shelter, food, and so they oftentimes end up being better off than the locals, who suffer so much because of high unemployment and poverty here."
The migration dilemma in Agadez remains complex. Louise Donovan says the UNHCR is doing its best to help local authorities address the problem, but the tensions between migrants and the local population look set to continue.
"We're working very, very closely with the government, with the Ministry of Interior, with the Ministry of Justice. But it's very clear that for anybody who is fleeing persecution, [Niger] will continue to keep their asylum space open. So, we're definitely not going to see these refugees disappear."
First published on InfoMigrants.Sertan Sanderson