The bus station in Agadez, a remote city of low mud-brick buildings in the West African nation of Niger, is buzzing again.
Every week, thousands of migrants from West and Central Africa leave from the station in this gateway city to the Sahara aboard a caravan of pickup trucks, traveling for days toward North Africa, where many will then try to cross the Mediterranean in a quest to reach Europe.
For years, this portal was closed, at least officially. The country’s government, friendly to Europe, outlawed migration out of Agadez, and in exchange the European Union poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Niger’s coffers and the local economy.
But last summer, after generals in Niger seized power in a military coup, the European Union suspended financial support to the government — and in response, the generals severed the migration arrangement with the European Union in November. The gate is once again open, and a fresh flock of hopeful migrants is once again passing through, to the relief of many locals.
“Migration is how we make ends meet,” said Aicha Maman, a single mother who runs a business assisting migrants and served jail time in Agadez last year for illegal trafficking.
Niger’s decision, however, has caused alarm among European officials, who fear that the end of the partnership with Niger will lead many more people to attempt the treacherous journey north.
The land route through the Agadez gateway in Niger is thought by many migrants to be less expensive and less dangerous than the ocean route in the Atlantic — on rickety boats from the west coast of Africa through the Canary Islands. Even with the Niger route officially closed, migration toward Europe in 2022 reached the highest point since 2016.
Migration is once again topping the agenda of several European governments, and far-right parties looking to expel migrants are on the rise months before crucial elections for the European Parliament, one of the three key institutions of the European Union.
Emmanuela Del Re, the European Union’s top diplomat for the African region that includes Niger, said in a recent interview that Niger’s military junta is striking back at the European Union for refusing to recognize the junta: “They’re using migration as blackmail against the European Union.”
In Agadez, a desert outpost that has been at the crossroads of trade and migratory routes for centuries, thousands of households had relied on transporting, accommodating and selling goods to migrants.
With migration legal again, opportunities are back: Young men are buying new pickups to drive people north. Entrepreneurs who arranged housing and transportation for migrants have been released from prison.
Inside her mud-brick house on a recent morning, Ms. Maman said she intended to resume her business putting up migrants in houses locally known as “ghettos” and connecting them with drivers — an enterprise she has depended on for years to support her children and her parents.
“We’ve always considered migration an economic activity,” said Mohamed Anacko, the top civilian official in the Agadez region. “It’s not trafficking, it’s transportation.”
Two men in their 20s rested in a shelter on the fringes of Agadez one recent morning. The men, who are being identified only by their first names to avoid detection by the authorities, had come from neighboring Nigeria days earlier and had bought the water containers, sunglasses and head scarves necessary for the three-day trip to Libya.
Their journey would have been illegal weeks earlier under Niger’s anti-migration law, but now they were free to go north: One of the men, Abubakar, said he would look for a construction job in Libya, but as a fan of the Real Madrid soccer team, intended to reach Spain eventually. The other, Adamou, said he had his eyes on Paris, but first, any menial job in Libya would do.
Already, up to a hundred pickups, with 30 passengers squeezed in each, leave Agadez every week under military escort to protect them from bandits. Before Niger’s government repealed the law last year, a few dozen trucks were leaving illegally, local authorities and researchers say.
Few people have any incentive to keep the size of these caravans low: when Niger began implementing its anti-migration law in 2016, thousands of locals lost their only source of income. Agadez essentially turned into a border post for the European Union, thousands of miles from European shores.
Countless people transiting through Niger never try to reach Europe; many work in North African countries for a few years before going back home.
Still, scarred by the migration crisis of 2015, when more than a million people reached Europe mostly from the Middle East and Africa, the European Union has scrambled to keep migrants at bay, providing financial support to some key transit countries in exchange for tougher border controls.
For Niger, it was an appealing trade-off.
Until the coup last summer, the European Union provided nearly $1 billion in bilateral aid to the government of Niger since 2014, according to official figures from the bloc, on top of the hundreds of millions spent by individual European countries.
The European Union also promised to help those making a living from the migration business in the Agadez region find new jobs. But local officials in Agadez say that the funds promised benefited only about 900 of 6,500 people who had been involved in the migration business.
“Those who were making millions with migration were offered far less,” Dr. Rhoumour Ahmet Tchilouta, a researcher on migration from Agadez, said about the millions in local currency, the equivalent of thousands of dollars, that some could earn in a month.
Even so, more than four million migrants have transited through Agadez since 2016, according to the U.N. migration agency.
Those seeking to leave hid in the “ghetto” houses concealed behind high metal gates in residential neighborhoods. Or they circumvented the city and escaped police surveillance by taking uncharted paths, resulting in thousands of deaths or disappearances, according to humanitarian organizations.
“The Sahara swallows countless migrants, like the Mediterranean,” said Azizou Chehou, the head of Alarm Phone Sahara, a nonprofit that rescues stranded migrants in the desert.
Tens of thousands of others have traveled through Agadez in the opposite direction: on their way back from North Africa, after militias in Libya or security forces in Algeria pushed them out. From Agadez, the U.N. migration agency repatriates them to their countries of origin with the financial help of the European Union.
Agadez has become the choke point where those seeking to reach North Africa cross paths with those returning home to West or Central African countries, and where stories of hope and suffering collide.
One morning last month in one of those rundown houses, a few Sierra Leonean men awaiting their repatriation chatted with fellow migrants from their country who were heading north.
Among them was Mabinty Conteh, 23, carrying her 9-month-old niece. Ms. Conteh said that her sister, the baby’s mother, had died last year, and that her own parents had died from Ebola years ago. She wanted to reach Italy through Libya, but was running out of money.
“I don’t have any family left,” said Ms. Conteh, who had sold clothes in Sierra Leone. “I have nothing.”
Her fellow countrymen tried to discourage her, sharing stories of sexual violence and beatings by border guards in Algeria, and sexual slavery in Libya. In interviews, more than a dozen migrants described being detained in horrendous conditions in Algerian prisons, then forced to walk for hours in the desert before being brought to Agadez.
Alfred Conteh, a 29-year-old truck driver from Sierra Leone (no relation to Mabinty Conteh) described how inmates in an Algerian prison were so thirsty that they stole each other’s bottles of urine. Mr. Conteh said he had been waiting for months to be repatriated.
“I’m tired of this thing and just want to go home,” he said.
But neither laws nor testimony of atrocities discourages the migrants.
“People want to leave, no matter how much one prevents them,” said Demba Mballo, a Senegalese migrant who settled in Agadez and now connects migrants to drivers. “We don’t encourage, we don’t discourage. We only facilitate.”
Omar Hama Saley contributed reporting.