By Eric Reidy
Niger has deported at least 132 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers back to Libya, drawing criticism that it is flouting international law by sending them back to dangerous and inhumane conditions from which they recently escaped.
The deportation, the first of asylum seekers from Niger's migrant hub of Agadez, was confirmed by a high-ranking UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official, and later by an informed source in the Nigerien interior ministry who insisted those sent back were "criminals" fighting for militias in southern Libya. UNHCR put the number at 135, but the interior ministry said three people had escaped.
UNHCR said those deported were part of a group of around 160 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrested in Agadez on 2 May. The majority fled to Niger to escape harsh conditions and treatment in Libya and were receiving assistance from UNHCR.
Sudanese refugees waiting to be loaded into trucks to be deported to Libya.
The Sudanese men were deported across the land border into the south of Libya on Wednesday or Thursday, and their current whereabouts are unknown, according to the UNHCR official. Prior to the deportation, UNHCR secured the release of women and children, and several other people escaped.
One of those arrested on 2 May was a 58-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker whom IRIN met during a visit to Agadez in March. His current whereabouts are unknown, but communicating from prison before the deportation via text message, the man, who asked for his identity to be withheld due to the ongoing risks, said those arrested were held for several days without food.
On 7 May, several large trucks entered the prison. When the Sudanese resisted orders to board the trucks, the police beat them, according to people who escaped who communicated with IRIN via text message. Three men were taken to the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.
The trucks departed in the direction of Madama, a desert outpost close to the Libyan border and some 900 kilometres, or two to three days of gruelling travel, from Agadez.
On 9 May, IRIN received confirmation from the senior UNHCR official that the 135 Sudanese who were in the trucks had been deported to Libya.
"We deported a group of criminals who had been part of the militias fighting in southern Libya for security reasons," the Niger interior ministry source told IRIN. "They had no status as political or humanitarian refugees."
Human rights advocates expressed alarm at what they said was a violation of non-refoulement, the international law that prohibits states from sending refugees and asylum seekers back to countries where they may be in harm's way.
The deportations are seen as setting a worrying precedent for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who are increasingly trapped in Libya with no route of exit to safety.
"It is inhuman and unlawful to send migrants and refugees back to Libya, where they face shocking levels of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour," Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch's associate director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an email.
"This violates the absolute prohibition under international law… against sending people to a place where they face a serious risk of threats to their lives and freedoms."
Agadez is a major transit hub for migrants travelling from West Africa to Libya en route to Europe. But since last December, more than 1,700 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers have fled from Libya to Niger, according to the latest UNHCR figures. This is a significant reversal of the trend of people travelling north from east and west Africa to the Libyan coast, to cross the sea and seek protection in Europe.
Since 2013, more than 600,000 asylum seekers and migrants have taken that route to Italy. The number of arrivals has decreased significantly since mid-July, when the Italian government allegedly co-opted Libyan militias to fight people smuggling.
The European Union and Italy have also been providing funding, training, and equipment to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has stepped up efforts to intercept boats carrying refugees and migrants across the sea.
Culle from Allafrica.