By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, Jan 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Niger is better off compromising with traffickers who smuggle goods and people across the desert than risking violence trying to stop them, according to researchers and regional authorities.
The West African country is a crossroads in the Sahara where people illegally transport drugs, gold and people along ancient trade routes, often headed for Europe by way of Libya.
Many migrants trying to reach Europe pay people to smuggle them through Niger and do so willingly, but others are exploited for labour and sex work, abused and enslaved by traffickers.
While Europe wants Niger to crack down on the trafficking, some experts say they are better off allowing it to continue.
"Given the rapid deterioration of security across the Sahel region, the need to prevent violent conflict in remote, highly vulnerable regions like northern Niger outweighs the need to curb criminality," said Hannah Armstrong, a researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Belgium-based think tank.
ICG published a report this week urging Niger to focus only on traffickers who are heavily armed or engage in violence.
Niger's government spokesman declined to comment.
Militant groups with links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are active in neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, and wage frequent attacks in Niger's border zones.
But northern Niger has largely been spared the same level of violence, partly due to informal cooperation between authorities and traffickers, said ICG.
"It's a method we have used," said Mohamed Anacko, president of the Regional Council of Agadez, Niger's main migrant smuggling hub.
"Instead of multiplying the risks of violence, you have to choose the lesser of two evils," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As fears of terrorism scared tourists off some decades ago, Agadez residents instead made a living by transporting, feeding and housing migrants, said Anacko.
When the EU cracked down on migration in 2016, many young people were left unemployed and some turned to other forms of trafficking.
"The risk we've seen is that if we block them too much, they could shift into real terrorism," said Anacko, also president of the Agadez-based Peace and Security Commission.
"That's what has led us to be more moderate," he said.
The European Union wants them to take a harsher line, he said, which ICG said could upset what is a fragile peace.
"The European Union strongly believes that human trafficking and illicit trades in arms, drugs and other items are interlinked with and contribute to instability," an EU spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email. (Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.