Gold rush, migrant crisis overwhelms Niger's arid Arlit town

Wednesday April 12 2023
Migrants in Niger

Migrants on March 29, 2023 queue outside the IOM information centre near the transit centre in Arlit, Niger, a town whose population has doubled due to a gold rush. PHOTO | STANISLAS POYET | AFP


The short dusty street in Arlit, a mining town in Northern Niger, is a sad and seedy place.

Faces of young women, many of them from Nigeria, appear in the cracks of doorways offering their bodies in exchange for money.

Prostitution is discreetly flourishing here, a once-quiet town that has been turned upside-down by a population influx.

A major cause is a gold rush that has sucked in fortune seekers from Southern Niger and the country's neighbours.

But there is also a build-up of migrants from across West Africa, who pass through this crossroads town on their desperate trek to Europe.

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The inflow is creating economic and social strains in a remote and conservative region whose culture prides itself on welcoming strangers.    

"Cohabitation with non-Muslims is a bit difficult, especially with these 'free women'," said Issa, a trader using the local term for sex workers.

"It's giving the neighbourhood a bad name," he added.

"We don't have any problems with people here," Nadya said, a prostitute in her thirties with two children.

"I do it for my children. I really need the money," she added.

Officials blame gold rush

Arlit lies in harsh terrain a couple of hundred from Algeria's southern border, between the Sahara and the eastern rim of the Air mountains. 

Officials estimate the gold rush has helped cause the population of towns in the Agadez region, which includes Arlit to double in a decade.

But there is also a huge transient population of West African migrants desperate to get to Europe to start a new life.

Niger desert migrants

Nigerien soldiers stand guard as a crowd of migrants gather in Assamaka on March 29 2023. PHOTO | STANISLAS POYET | AFP

Many are in Arlit on their way to the Algerian border, some 200 kilometres away, and many are stranded in the town after being sent back by Algeria.

A Togolese couple Ickbal and Yasmine queued for help at a centre set up by the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"We have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, it's very difficult," said Ickbal, a student.

"I have been asking for food for my fiancée from our Nigerien brothers. They are very kind, but we can't do this all the time," he added.

"We don't have the additional money to cope with the extra needs in terms of sanitation or schooling. It goes beyond our budget," said Arlit's Mayor Abdourahamane Mouali.

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"But the migrants are there, and we have to deal with the situation, only from a humanitarian point of view," he added.

In 2015, Niger approved a law based on the 2000 Palermo Convention on human trafficking criminalising support for illegal border crossings and for unauthorised stays on its territory.

The law wiped out a flourishing part of the local economy, which provided transport, food and shelter to the migrants.

IOM investing in stabilisation programmes

The IOM, the biggest international humanitarian organisation in Arlit, is investing in so-called stabilisation programmes such as water wells, sanitation and job creation schemes that help to show local people that migrants are not being unfairly favoured.

But the needs are huge. In 2022, the number of stranded migrants seeking help from the agency rose by 35 percent to more than 17,000.

Funding from international donors meanwhile has declined, forcing many schemes to end, according to local officials.

Many locals are convinced that the population explosion has led to crime, including frequent armed attacks.

"The migrants leave us in peace. They even respect Nigerien law more than Nigeriens do. It's the gold miners who are the source of the problems," said Issa, the trader.

Senegalese gold miner

An artisanal gold miner on February 2, 2023 digs at the Bantakokouta gold mine in South-eastern Senegal. PHOTO | JOHN WESSELS | AFP

Five soldiers on Sunday were killed in an ambush by unidentified gunmen as they were escorting a convoy of miners from the gold rush site of Tchibarakaten, a security source and media said.

"Quantities of gold were probably carried off," according to a local elected official.

Arlit also lies several hundred kilometres from Mali, the nexus of a bloody militia insurgency that has expanded into Burkina Faso and South-western Niger.

"For the time being, the region is stable, but we don't know how long it will last," said Ibrahim Rixa Issa, a vice chairman in the regional council.

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The vast desert border is highly porous.

"We only have two border posts on a line of 2,000 kilometres, and we don't have enough money to do air surveillance," said the region's governor, Magagi Maman Dada.