AGADEZ, Niger — Aziz Dicko knew the risks — or he thought he did. African migrants could drown trying to reach Europe. They could die of thirst in the desert.
But as the 17-year-old migrant waited in a smuggler’s compound in this north African city, he was pondering a new threat.
A week earlier, his 18-year-old brother had left the same compound, run by a bearded man known as “the Malian.” The teen was supposed to be driven to Libya, where he would get on a boat to Italy. But shortly after he left, Aziz got a frantic call: His brother had been sold to gunmen who were demanding cash for his release.
Now Aziz was planning to travel to Libya via the same smuggler.
“I am very afraid,” said Aziz, a tall, wiry native of the Ivory Coast, wearing a black T-shirt and red pants.
For years, traffickers in Agadez funneled tens of thousands of migrants to Libya, an important springboard to Europe. But this Saharan town of low-slung, oatmeal-hued buildings has been transformed by a crackdown on smuggling, which has driven the trade underground — and encouraged the rise of a new generation of ruthless smugglers.
The European Union has played a key role in the crackdown, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on training for African security forces and programs to entice people to abandon trafficking. The E.U. has also pressured African governments to enforce anti-trafficking laws and bolster border controls. Since midsummer, those efforts have sharply reduced the human flow reaching Europe from Africa.
But the measures have had the unintended consequence of making the journey more perilous for Africans who still head north through Niger, fleeing poverty and strife.
Impoverished migrants are grappling with sharply rising fees. Growing numbers are being transported on riskier routes. Many are being sold to Libyan militias and criminal gangs.
More than 1,700 migrants have been rescued in the past year after being abandoned in the desert by smugglers, according to the International Organization for Migration.
“The smugglers are now playing games with migrants,” said Maurice Miango, the representative in Agadez for the U.N.-linked intergovernmental group. “They are putting more migrants’ lives in danger.”
[Inside Libya’s thriving migrant trade]
Aziz and his older brother Abdoulaye had left their home in the Ivory Coast three months earlier, hoping to land jobs in Europe. Their father was dead, and they had younger siblings to care for. Their elder brother Charles, a truck driver, and their mother, a small trader, gave them each the equivalent of $360, money scraped together through borrowing and saving.
But the boys’ cash dwindled as they paid bus fare through Burkina Faso and Niger and bribes to get past police checkpoints. “When we arrived in Agadez, we didn’t have much money,” Aziz recalled.
They did have the number of the Malian, whose smuggling network included recruiters in his native Mali, as well as Ivory Coast.
The road to Libya was not far from the Malian’s compound, one of many “ghetto houses” where migrants stay until they can be trafficked northward to Libya. That country’s government had collapsed in 2011, and smugglers thrived in the absence of authority.
When the brothers arrived in the Malian’s tan and green house in early October, they found more than two dozen migrants awaiting transportation to Libya, mostly boys.
There, the brothers got their first surprise. The price to be smuggled to the southern Libyan city of Sebha — the first stop in that country — had doubled to $540.
By late October, the brothers decided that Abdoulaye would go to Libya first. Aziz would stay behind at the compound, waiting for more money from his family. He whiled away his days on a thin, frayed mattress in a closet-sized guardhouse whose walls were covered with messages scrawled by other migrants.
“May God, in all his infinite forgiveness, protect us from any major incidents that can happen on our journey,” read one.
The new smugglers ‘don’t know the desert’
Only a year ago, human smugglers operated in the open in Agadez, and their pickup trucks were often escorted by the Nigerien military. But then the government started enforcing a 2015 anti-smuggling law.
“Now everything is disorganized,” said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez. “This is the consequence of the E.U. pressure.”
[Inside the remote city of smugglers where Africans are funneled to Europe]
Scores of “passeurs,” as smugglers are called here, were arrested. Other men left trafficking under an E.U. program that provided incentives to enter alternative professions.
But new traffickers soon replaced them — like the Malian.
A recent arrival to Agadez, he liked to play soccer and listen to pulsating African dance music. One day last month, he drove into his compound in a shiny white SUV, fashionably dressed in a blue striped Izod shirt, jeans and Polo slippers.
There, he told a visiting Washington Post journalist that he was not the “chief” and declined to be interviewed. But around Agadez, the Malian was well-known.
“He’s a big smuggler,” said Bashir Amma, who heads a local association of smugglers, including many participating in the E.U. program.
To keep the Malian’s compound hidden from authorities, the migrants were ordered not to leave, the boys said. They could buy food and supplies only from a nearby stall.
In the desert, traffickers sought to avoid military patrols. They often took hazardous off-road trails and got lost or broke down. The new smugglers “don’t know the desert,” said Ali Ibrahim, a longtime smuggler who said he recently stopped trafficking.
A few months ago, a smuggler ordered Hussein Toure and 24 other migrants to get out of his pickup truck in the scorching heat. There might be patrols in the area, he said. He never returned. The group walked for two days before splitting up.
Only five reached Agadez.
“I never saw the others again,” recalled Toure, 36, from the Ivory Coast. “They must have died.”
[Libya’s coast guard abuses migrants despite E.U. funding and training]
Sold to ‘credit houses’
Abdoulaye crossed the desert in one of the Malian’s trucks without incident. But when he reached Sebha, he later told his relatives, the driver handed him to men who ran an informal militia-run prison known in Agadez as a “credit house.” Their job: to extort money from the families of migrants.
They made him phone Aziz, who heard the sound of his brother being beaten.
“He was crying,” Aziz recalled.
Before the teens left the Ivory Coast, they had learned via Facebook and text messages about some cases of migrants being sold into slavery, or locked up in overcrowded detention centers in Libya.
But the situation has steadily worsened, according to IOM officials and current and former smugglers. Traffickers now routinely sell migrants to credit houses, they say. The smugglers may be trying to recoup some of their own costs: With increased border patrols, they must pay more bribes to corrupt military and police. In some cases, the credit houses even send trucks to Agadez and buy unsuspecting migrants from smugglers.
“This has become a business,” said Lincoln Gaingar, who manages an IOM center in Agadez that helps migrants.
An increasing number of migrants, wary of being abandoned in the desert, are refusing to pay smugglers until they arrive in Sebha. Their drivers often imprison them until they turn over the cash, which includes “fees” for the credit house.
Aziz said his brother Charles had wired $540 to the Malian for Abdoulaye’s fare to Sebha. But Yusuf Kanate, 17, who manages the Malian’s compound, said Abdoulaye was supposed to pay on arrival. Kanate said he was unaware of any wire transfer.
Abdoulaye recently called his mother, Kadjati, in the Ivory Coast. In a phone interview, she recalled how he told her he was locked up and was beaten regularly.
“I was crying,” she said. “So was my son.”
Then, he informed her that his captors wanted $820.
“I don’t have any money,” his mother replied. She could hear her son being whipped.
‘This is not going to stop me’
From July through late December, the number of people trying to sneak across the Mediterranean to Europe dropped by about 43 percent compared with the same period in 2016, according to U.N. figures. That was partly due to the crackdown on smugglers in Niger. In addition, the E.U. and Italy were training and funding Libya’s coast guard to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.
An E.U. spokeswoman, Catherine Ray, said the anti-smuggling effort “has already borne fruits in disrupting criminal networks’ business on the ground.” She said the E.U. was working with the IOM to help migrants held by traffickers.
Despite the new measures, though, over 170,000 migrants still entered Europe by sea this year as of late December, and more than 3,100 died trying, according to the IOM.
Community leaders and smugglers in Agadez predict the E.U. measures will ultimately fail to stop the trade. In interviews, disgruntled former smugglers said the one-time E.U. incentive payments, of about $2,700, were far from enough to start new careers.
“If there is not enough money, they will go back to smuggling,” said Amma, adding that a human trafficker can make as much as $3,500 a week.
In the Malian’s compound, word of Abdoulaye’s predicament spread quickly among the other boys. But none backed out of their plans to go to Libya and then Italy.
“Everybody has their own luck,” said Idrissa Traore, 16. “This is not going to stop me.”
Nor was it going to stop Aziz.
“It is very risky,” he said. “But we have no choice.”
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