The New York Times

At French Outpost in African Migrant Hub, Asylum for a Select Few

NIAMEY, Niger — In a bare suite of prefab offices, inside a compound off a dirt road, French bureaucrats are pushing France’s borders thousands of miles into Africa, hoping to head off would-be migrants. All day long, in a grassy courtyard, they interview asylum-seekers, as the African reality they want to escape swirls outside — donkey carts and dust, joblessness and poverty, and, in special cases, political persecution. If the French answer is yes to asylum, they are given plane tickets to France and spared the risky journey through the desert and on the deadly boats across the Mediterranean that have brought millions of desperate migrants to Europe in recent years, transforming its politics and societies. “We’re here to stop people from dying in the Mediterranean,” said Sylvie Bergier-Diallo, the deputy chief of the French mission in Niger. But very few are actually approved, and so the French delegation is also there to send a message to other would-be migrants: stay home, and do not risk a perilous journey for an asylum claim that would ultimately be denied in France. The French outpost is part of a new forward defense in Europe’s struggle to hold off migration from Africa; it is a small, relatively benign piece of a larger strategy that otherwise threatens to subvert Europe’s humanitarian ideals. After years of being buffeted by uncontrolled migration, Europe is striking out. Italy is suspected of quietly cutting deals with Libyan warlords who control the migration route. The European Union has sent delegations to African capitals, waving aid and incentives for leaders to keep their people at home. Now come the French. “There’s a much more active approach to see that the immigrant stays as far as way as possible from Europe, and this is completely to the detriment of those concerned,” said Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch. The French mission was “positive,” he said, “but it’s too late and too small.” It is also the flip side of a fast-toughening stance by France against migrants, as President Emmanuel Macron began his push this month for what critics say is a draconian new law aimed at sending many of those who have arrived back home. Even if some of Europe’s new methods are questionable, the results have been evident: Last year, for the first time since the crisis began several years ago, the migration flow was reversed, according to Giuseppe Loprete, head of the U.N. migration agency office in Niger. About 100,000 would-be migrants returned through Niger from Libya compared with 60,000 who traversed the vast and impoverished desert country heading toward Europe. As the hub for West African migration, Niger had long been under pressure from Europe to crack down on the migrant flow. And something has shifted. The bus stations in Niamey, once packed with West Africans trying to get to Agadez, the last city before Libya, are empty. The police sternly check identity documents.

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