Ismael has been working as an IOM database agent and community mobilizer (or “MobCom”) for the past three years. When he is not doing admin work at the office, Ismael is out in the field — in bus stations and “ghettos” — raising awareness about irregular migration and its alternatives.
Most recently, he has been raising awareness about COVID-19.
“In the beginning, the neighbors were talking; there were rumors Ismael was a brothel enthusiast,” he joked. “My family sat me down and I had to thoroughly explain to them my work. I think — I hope — they understood.”
Due to COVID-19, and the closure of construction sites in Algeria at the beginning of the pandemic, more West African migrants started to come back to Niger. But with public transport suspended, most couldn’t travel further south of Arlit, nor move further north. An opportunity was soon spotted by local residents with their own vehicles. They reinvented themselves as transporters. Landlords also converted to “ghetto” owners.
The travel restrictions have favored, among other things, the emergence of these new ghettos, but also the resurrection of older ones. Higher prices were posted and new challenges had to be overcome by migrants who, already low on money, had to pay double the prior price for transport and accommodation.
In 2017, just as Ismael was starting his journey with IOM, Bella was starting her journey from Nigeria to Europe. Ever since her parents died, as the eldest in her family, Bella has had to carry the financial load to support her three sisters, their children and two of her own. Just 26 years old, she had big dreams of making enough money in Italy to support her family back home.
Traveling alone on her way up through Niger, she stopped in Arlit, close to the border with Algeria, where she met fellow Nigerians. They all recounted horrendous stories of abuse, of unimaginable things they had experienced in prison in Libya or trying to cross to Italy by boat. This was enough to change Bella’s mind. She decided to go back, but she was embarrassed. She couldn’t return home and show up empty-handed.
Through common friends, she met Madame Pandora, a 40-year-old Nigerian woman. For the past ten years Madame Pandora has been running a popular brothel in Arlit. Pandora herself had tried crossing from Libya to Europe in 2008 but was returned to shore.
After two failed attempts, Pandora also decided to go back to Niger and settle in Arlit where she got married and had a child. “I thought that if I tried again, I would die,” she recalled. “I just made up my mind that I wasn’t destined to be there.”
Bella didn’t feel at ease with the idea of working in a brothel, but she accepted, reluctantly, hoping she could soon make enough money to return to Nigeria. It now has been three years.
Pandora is currently hosting 20 Nigerian women ranging from 24 to 60 years old in her maison close, one of the estimated 60 brothels in Arlit and four in the infamous ‘cartier de l’enfer’ (‘neighborhood of hell’). Unlike Agadez, Arlit tends to host more female migrants in brothels rather than in ghettos, due to the high number of migrant women headed for Algeria in search of work opportunities.
Pandora herself was forced to increase the girls’ daily rent much to their despair. Bella hasn’t seen her children, aged six and ten, since she left, but she always made sure they had everything they needed. “I used to send my family money every month,” Bella says amidst tears. “I don’t remember the last time I sent them money. I can barely feed myself these days.”
Due to travel restrictions, IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme had to be suspended as well. At full capacity, the transit centers increasingly became unable to accept new migrants wishing to go home.
Fortunately, by early June, IOM’s AVRR programme had resumed, thanks to a humanitarian corridor organized by IOM with support from the Government of Niger.
At first glance, COVID-19 prevention measures seem unlikely to be followed in Pandora’s maison close, now equipped with a brand-new handwashing station received from a local NGO but never refilled due to the lack of running water. As for the clients — patience seems to be lacking. “We tell them to wash their hands and they tell us to get on with it already; the clock is ticking,” the women say.
But COVID-19 seems hardly a concern for the women for whom money remains the main struggle. “It was never this bad. With COVID-19, we can’t do business like before,” says Pandora, who also runs a hair salon next door which hardly sees any clients these days. “Luckily, I can get by thanks to my small side businesses.”
Due to the many gold mines close to Arlit and its surroundings, the town hosts high numbers of gold miners from mostly Chad and Sudan who, as regular brothel clients, often pay the women in gold nuggets called ficha. Neatly stacked in paracetamol bottles, the nuggets are weighed directly at the brothel on portable scales and later exchanged at one of the many nearby pawn shops in Arlit.
Nevertheless, fewer people visit them these days and those who do, tend to be poor themselves. They come in with phones, clothes, shoes or food, expecting services in exchange. “What choice do we have? No one will give us any other job in this town,” Bella says.
The women have experienced their fair share of violence during their stay at the maison close, where the only things that can offer them protection seem to be some rusty locks and a few dogs. “Not a day goes by that the street boys don’t harass us — and at the end they rob us and leave.”
Without hope of protection, the women say most have stopped reporting these incidents.
After a short COVID-19 related break, Ismael and his team of MobComs picked up their awareness-raising activities again, visiting ghettos and talking to migrants about their struggles and alternatives. Most of the girls they met in Arlit have long given up on their dream of reaching Europe, albeit knowing a select few who have succeeded in reaching their destination.
“They video-call us with an Italian number; they show us where they are. It’s luck; they are destined to be there — not everyone is,” Pandora says with a pragmatic tone. “There are also countless girls who left for Libya and I haven’t heard from them since. I don’t even know if they are still alive.”
Bella is glancing at the leaflet on IOM’s assistance and confesses she wants to go home. “Some of the girls went back home with IOM’s help and you should too if you feel prepared,” Pandora tells her. “But myself, I don’t feel ready now. I know deep down that I need to go back one day, but not today. Ask me again next week.”
IOM’s awareness-raising activities in Niger are currently carried out in the framework of IOM’s Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism, under the project Migrants Rescue and Assistance in Agadez Region (MIRAA) Phase III, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.