(Re)Doing Asylum in Externalization Policies: The Case of Niger
This PhD project looks ethnographically at the (re)configurations of asylum and refugee protection in Niger, which are tightly linked to EU externalization of migration control and refugee protection. During a 13-month period of ethnographic fieldwork in Niamey and Agadez in 2018‒2019, I conducted research among a variety of actors within the asylum regime – notably, asylum seekers and migrants, state bureaucrats, and UNHCR agents – and looked at their everyday practices, experiences, and strategies. In my dissertation I analyse how this constellation of actors, with their respective intentions, laws, regulations, and policies, are remaking the Nigerien state in asylum matters and beyond. I try to understand the resulting shifts and consequences of this everyday making of externalization by approaching it from five different angles.
First, my study focuses on changes in the trajectories of asylum seekers and refugees that result from the implementation of migration control and the intertwined strengthening of the national asylum system. Until recently, the Sahel state of Niger was the central passage point for migrants and refugees moving from Central and West Africa to the Maghreb and potentially further on to Europe. With Niger’s effective criminalization of transit migration in 2016 (enacted in exchange for EU funding), the hardening of migration control and violence in the Maghreb, and the EU-funded reinforcement of Niger’s national asylum system and resettlement options, many refugees and asylum seekers opted for applying for asylum in Niger instead of travelling further north. The number of individual asylum applications jumped from a few dozen in 2017 to 4,000 in 2018. However, confronted with often dire living conditions and slow procedures, many asylum seekers and refugees struggled to decide whether they should stay, go back to their home countries, or travel on.
Another aspect of the EU’s externalization policies entails changes within the Direction des Réfugiés, the Nigerien asylum office responsible for street-level contact with asylum seekers and refugees and for creating asylum files. During a brief period of participant observation in the office, I witnessed the impact of increased flows of money, partners, and asylum seekers to the office and the related difficulties for the staff. The difficulties resulted from a lack of clearly defined routines, the increased influence of the UNHCR on office recruitment and structure, work overload for the experienced staff and brain drain to the NGO sector, and an atmosphere of suspicion towards asylum seekers and refugees, who were often seen as seeking advantages to which most of the Nigerien population did not have access.
The third angle of my research involves the Commission nationale d’éligibilité au statut des réfugiés, the national eligibility commission responsible for making decisions in asylum cases. While focusing on the example of Niger, I trace the origins of this decision-making model, which is particularly widespread in countries throughout the Global South, and its restructuring in the reinforcement of their asylum procedures. According to my analysis, in 2019 the members of the commission relied on three strategies to extend the sources of information used to adjudicate asylum cases to, presumably, the entire state and society: they integrated professional knowledge from all “layers” of the state; they included neighbours’ assessments of an applicant’s morality (the “morality check”); and they sought informal social control knowledge on applicants from their own observations and rumours going around the city. The reforms that the UNHCR proposed in 2018 to the national eligibility commission trimmed these state and social assessment procedures, potentially leading to a more “European”, single-agent model of asylum decision making that would curtail such state and societal assessments of applicants.
Additional case studies on two recent southbound refugee movements from Libya allow me to deepen the analysis of the above-mentioned policy shifts. First, the highly politicized pilot project Emergency Transit Mechanism turned Niger into a so-called “transit platform”, funded and created by the EU to present a solution for the refugees detained in Libya. Since late 2017, the UNHCR has been evacuating refugees from Libyan prisons and sending them to Niger in order to process their asylum and resettlement claims in Niger. This mechanism has increased the influence of the UNHCR on asylum adjudication and on entry into and residence in Niger, leading to a degree of frustration and mobilization among some bureaucrats and refugees.
The second case study looks at the local negotiations surrounding some 2,000 Sudanese refugees in Agadez. In 2017‒2018, these refugees unexpectedly left Libya and headed to northern Niger’s migration hub Agadez, where new national asylum and UNHCR offices had been set up in an effort to convince asylum seekers in transit to apply for asylum in Niger. In my research project, I analyse how decentralizing the asylum procedure by setting up offices in Agadez and implementing migration control transformed the town from a vibrant transit hub to a site for processing and hosting refugees and migrants. This development clashed with local moral and political economies that focused on securitizing and developing the Agadez region. State asylum bureaucrats negotiated these moral and political conflicts by slowing down the asylum procedures, ultimately inciting many Sudanese to leave again and head to Libya, Algeria, the region’s gold mines, or back to Sudan or refugee camps in Chad.
As these five angles suggest, the remaking of the Nigerien asylum system in the wake of the EU externalization of migration control and refugee protection has yielded unintended consequences on the ground. These include a perceived loss of power on the part of state asylum bureaucrats as the UNHCR, the EU, and local anti-refugee mobilizations are granted greater influence; a potential “Europeanization” of the asylum procedure limiting the influence of local state and societal norms; and fractured trajectories of refugees often experiencing difficult protection and livelihood situations and seeking to remigrate, in violation of EU externalization policies.