Labouring in a Conflict Zone: Lucrative but Dangerous Prospects for Niger’s Migrants in Libya

By: Julie Snorek, Victoria Sibson and Andrew Seal

This blog post is based on the authors’ chapter of the same title in the book Understanding Migrant Decisions, Belachew Gebrewold and Tendayi Bloom, Eds. Routledge 2016.

The chaos and confusion in Libya contribute to an increasing trend in migration from West Africa to Europe. Yet, seasonal and economic migrants from Sahelien countries such as Niger continue to need remittances from Libya to maintain their struggling home economies. The prospects for economic migration to Libya from Sahelien countries is threatened by the fracturing of society, continuous conflict, and a heightened sense of personal danger in Libya. During a recent study in Tahoua, Niger, we explored factors contributing to the continuous flow of economic migrants to Libya.

Bush Taxi Aug 2009 2

Travellers heading north in Tahoua, Niger. Julie Snorek photo / August 2009

It’s June in Niger and the rains have just started to refresh the parched soil after a long, 8-month dry season. For many young men, the rainy season marks the time to return home from trans-boundary labor to wives, children and parents in order to cultivate rain-fed crops such as millet, sorghum, and cowpea. For other individuals around West Africa, as the Mediterranean warms, the lucrative business of trafficking people to Europe also heats up, pulling an influx of migrants through Niger, the most common pathway into Libya.

As a humanitarian aid worker and researcher in Niger, the lead author of this post developed a sense of these multiple forms of migration while living and working for ten years in Tahoua, Niger, which lies on the main transportation artery between Nigeria and Libya. In contemporary times, large movements of people in Niger are triggered primarily by losses: livestock deaths, poor harvests, and periods of drought, push families with means to send able young men and women to work North or South of the border. Libya is the destination of choice for the communities of northern Tahoua.

In late 2015, as part of a team from University College of London and Concern Worldwide, we studied the impact of unconditional cash transfers on the nutrition status of women and children in poor and vulnerable households in Tahoua. Due to the importance of economic migration to household economy and health, we also explored how migration patterns may have shifted due to the humanitarian intervention as well as the conflicts in Libya and northern Nigeria. While the final results of the study are still being analyzed, this article presents initial findings.

During the Sahel drought of 1984, Muammar Gaddafi opened Libya’s borders to impoverished Nigeriens, promising economic opportunities. A significant number of households in Tahoua moved to and established themselves in Libya, serving in the army, working in well-paid jobs, and taking advantage of the opportunity to easily send remittances to families back home. The revolution in Libya disrupted this economic opportunity, sending 706,000 returnees out of Libya during the first 8 months of 2011. Today, Libya’s borders are a sieve through which over 140,000 migrants are predicted to pass in 2016 alone, many dying in the treacherous journey from Agadez through the Sahara. Two types of migrants are making the journey: those with the intention to work in Libya and those who seek departure across the sea. The latter are typically coming from the richer West African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal), while those seeking to work in Libya originate mostly from Niger, Chad, and Sudan. European migration requires both economic strength and ideological disillusionment with the situation at home, both of which were lacking amongst the people we interviewed in Niger.

The majority of Tahoua’s economic migrants end their journey at Sabha, Libya. The route is made up of heavily loaded transport vehicles and random checkpoints, and successful completion of the journey requires that one has social connections in Sabha, a factor that can pave one’s path to a job and may also determine one’s survival. According to Ahmed Baye, who works for an association defending the rights of women and indigenous groups, vulnerable migrants can easily be lured and enslaved by smugglers, disappearing into Libya’s criminal system of human trafficking.

When embarking from Tahoua to Libya, one pays approximately 150,000 – 300,000 FCFA (€230 – 450; $258.67 – 506 US) for the transportation and bribes (nationally the average annual income is about FCFA 200,000 or €302, $340 US per capita), the actual amount depending on the drivers’ ability to avoid check points, which have increased as part of an international effort to curb trans-Mediterranean migration. But when nearing Libyan territory, drivers are faced with militias who demand further bribes until they arrive in Ghat, the first Libyan border town along this desert highway, where they may be placed in a prison-like internment center and must await payment by a family member to be permitted to enter the country. Such payments (upwards from FCFA 100,000 or €150; 170 USD) are typically a loan from a person from within the migrant’s social network and must be paid back two-fold.

When they manage to find work, a migrant’s income may be relatively good but their rights are extremely limited. Respondents favored crossing the Sahara to return to Niger when they fell sick or were injured instead of paying the high hospital costs charged for undocumented workers.  Yet the journey home is just as expensive or more than that to get into Libya.

Those who are lucky with employment must still hide from those who might capture and sell them into trafficking rings. According to Baye, such trafficking has opened up a modern slave market, in which workers are auctioned to the highest bidder in larger cities like Tripoli. Gaddafi kept trafficking as well as trans-Mediterranean migration in check, but wages under his regime were lower for undocumented workers. Some migrant interviewees in Tahoua stated that earnings are now almost double what they could earn under the previous Libyan regime, one reason being that there is now a shortage of labor supply related to an increased danger to personal safety and the lure of European migration.

Yet, the desire to wager one’s life in a trans-Mediterranean voyage has not tempted the Nigeriens we interviewed. “We won’t get into a pirogue (canoe), let alone a boat on the sea!” The typical Niger migrant provides an important source of income for their community, while maintaining a strong desire to return home. Around 50 per cent of the surveyed households in Tahoua (recipients of Concern’s cash intervention, they are believed to be among the poorest in the community) received some kind of external support from migrants, more than 40 per cent from international migrants. Remittances provide necessary support for various kinds of ecological and social challenges, from a bad harvest to illness in the family, to social obligations such as weddings and funerals. During the cultivation season, among households with active migrants during our study, nearly half returned to work in the family’s fields during the growing season. From the Tahoua migrant’s perspective, European travel was for ‘adventurers’ such as ‘the Senegalese;’ whereas these men ‘focus on building up their homes in Niger’ not in establishing themselves on a new continent.

Sometimes, however, multiple factors such as travel loans can prohibit frequent return to Niger, to the extent that two migrants spoke about ‘marriage by phone.’ Parents in this case agree on a wife, negotiate dowry costs and ask the migrant to transfer marriage expenses without his physical presence at the wedding. When they do arrive home, some of the migrants we spoke with felt compelled to leave again due to a bad harvest, a common occurrence as rainfall becomes increasingly intermittent and unpredictable. For unmarried men, leaving Niger is also considered a rite of passage to gain status, purchase a motorcycle, pay for a girlfriend’s dowry, or simply to experience the elusive ‘good life.’ Yet when asked what might encourage them to stay, migrants returned to the household needs: “Men do not migrate when the stocks (of food) are full.” Another migrant stated, “There is no country better than Niger! If it were not to feed the household, we would never leave.” While cash transfers from organizations like Concern Worldwide have supported households in multiple ways, their influence on migration decisions remains ambiguous.

Libya, while increasingly dangerous, continues to be a potentially lucrative and compelling prospect for economic migrants from Niger. Vulnerable populations in Niger will, without greater local economic opportunities, continue to be dependent upon remittances to supplement precarious livelihoods. These livelihoods are likely to become even more precarious due to the changing climate.

Authors: Julie Snorek (lead author), United Nations University: Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS); Victoria Sibson, Institute for Global Health, University College of London (UCL); and Andrew Seal, Institute for Global Health, University College of London (UCL)

Republished with cooperation and permission of the editors. 

Read other posts in this series

Read other blog posts by the editor of this series, Tendayi Bloom



  1. I was interested by the comment:

    From the Tahoua migrant’s perspective, European travel was for ‘adventurers’ such as ‘the Senegalese;’ whereas these men ‘focus on building up their homes in Niger’ not in establishing themselves on a new continent.

    Do these Tahou migrants see European migration as adventure travel? Interesting. I wonder if a Senegalese person who is migrating and risking their life in a boat feels that it is adventure travel or more like survival and striving for a better life! That said, are there many Senegalese even attempting European migration?

    Thanks for sharing this Julie, so glad to read about the good work you’re doing!


  2. Julie Snorek · · Reply

    Hi Lari, Well, considering the research is from the perspective of Nigeriens, it is difficult to know what the perspective of Senegalese would be without having that conversation. Yet, what is apparent in both the literature on migration and this research is that migrants from relatively less rich households tend to migrate temporarily or for short term, economic purposes. Those who have more means tend to seek a better life with the means they have through whatever path possible. When these Nigeriens spoke about ‘adventurers,’ they are making a comparison to their own self-perception of one’s capacity as a poor migrant. Migrants from Senegal, Nigeria, and other Sub-Saharan countries are the more prevalent groups entering boats to cross the Mediterranean.


  3. This sounds like a very difficult position to find oneself in. It also makes me ask questions about what my government is doing. If things were managed under the rule of Gaddafi, what motivations were there for pushing Arab Spring? This world is crazy and is getting Crazier by the moment. This also seems like a very large sum for the migrants to pay as a fee. $170 US. can be an insurmountable fee for someone without a way to earn it. Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope to read more about this.


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