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There is extensive media attention given to migration from North Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean. These stories are accompanied by regular reports on the rescue of migrants from sinking boats, issues concerning their reception in Europe, and their impact on European politics. The BBC usefully has called attention to the likely larger and more deadly flow of migrants across the Sahara. The report is primarily based on anecdotes obtained from on-the-ground reporting. Statistics are thin, but the BBC’s conclusions are credible.
The BBC cites data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which are probably the best available. According to IOM, in 2015 there were 6,000 traffickers in the Agadez region of Niger who transported some 340,000 migrants across the Sahara to Libya. The migrants were eventually bound for Europe. They came from all over West Africa to Agadez, long a center of the cross Sahara trade. In one of the poorest parts of the world, the profits from trafficking were huge; the BBC quotes one trafficker as saying that he earned as much as $6,000 per week.
In 2015, according to the BBC, the Nigerien government, banned trafficking of people across the Sahara under pressure from European countries. The BBC ascribes some of the drop in migration to the law. Perhaps. But it is not clear what capacity the Nigerien government actually has to enforce such a law. The BBC provides anecdotes from wily traffickers who find new and different ways across the Sahara, though such routes are often far from water sources and presumably result in higher mortality rates. The BBC also notes that stories about the dangers of migration and the harsh conditions in holding centers in Libya and even in Europe are trickling back to villages all over West Africa, convincing would-be migrants to stay put.
Niger is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which permits the free movement of people across borders; the trafficking was therefore probably legal, at least until the Nigerien border with Libya, which is not a member of ECOWAS and could therefore presumably have blocked the trafficking. That country, however, is wracked by civil war.
Migration across the Sahara is also far more dangerous than across the Mediterranean. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Niger, Alessandra Morelli, estimates that for every migrant death in the Mediterranean, there are at least two in the Sahara.
Trade across the Sahara is an old song. Estimates are that the slave trade across the Sahara lasted longer than the Atlantic slave trade and involved nearly as many victims. But, trafficking from West Africa to Europe is still poorly understood, and it is not clear the exact numbers of migrants and traffickers involved, nor what is primarily driving such migration. For whatever reasons, the numbers appear to have indeed dropped.