Niger coup leaders overturn law criminalising migrant smuggling

File photo: Migrants are seen in silhouette, as they board a ship to be transferred to the mainland, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 15, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File photo

In Niger, the leaders of a recent coup have repealed an existing law that criminalised migrant smuggling for the past eight years. This legislation empowered authorities to take action against individuals involved in transporting migrants through Niger’s expansive desert, facilitating their journey to Libya and Europe.

President Mohamed Bazoum, who collaborated with the EU to curb the Mediterranean migration flow, has been held hostage by coup leaders since July 26. Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani has now declared himself the new head of state, with the ruling junta announcing the repeal of the law, contending that it failed to consider the interests of Niger and its citizens. Convictions made under the 2015 law are set to be annulled.

This move suggests that the junta in Niger’s capital, Niamey, intends to assert its authority over the country’s sovereignty, irrespective of international pressure. Following the coup, the EU halted all security cooperation with Niger, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, along with the US and France, refused to recognize Gen Tchiani as the leader. Budgetary aid to Niger was also suspended indefinitely.

The European bloc’s response to this significant setback to its strategy for managing migration flows from Africa remains uncertain. In 2015, the push for Niger to enact the now-repealed law came as over a million asylum seekers and migrants attempted to reach Europe. While the law led to a substantial reduction in numbers, traffickers criticised its strict enforcement in the subsequent years. People trafficking, a lucrative activity that could earn smugglers as much as $6,000 a week, was deterred thanks to the severity of the law which meant that if caught, traffickers faced lengthy prison sentences and vehicle confiscation.

With the law now repealed, concerns arise about the potential for trafficking gangs to exploit the opportunity, once again pushing migrants into neighbouring countries like Libya or Algeria for onward transport to Europe. Niger, situated in the Sahel, a region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, holds a crucial position in managing migration dynamics in the broader African context.

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