The European Union has been touting a faulty figure for migration reduction through key transit country Niger as it looks to expand a policy of giving more development aid to African nations if they crack down on people smuggling and migrants, IRIN can exclusively reveal.
When the International Organization for Migration released figures in early December showing a dramatic drop in the numbers of migrants transiting through northern Niger to reach Europe the previous month, EU officials seized on them as evidence that its strategy of partnering with African countries to curb irregular migration was working.
On the back of EU funding specifically for the purpose, IOM has been monitoring the movements of migrants through Niger since February. Between then and the end of November 2016, the agency recorded more than 417,000 migrants transiting through northern Niger en route to Algeria and Libya, with movement peaking during the summer months.
In November, IOM raised eyebrows when it reported that just 1,525 migrants had been recorded moving north towards the borders – a massive drop compared to 12,600 the month before.
Days later, the figures had been included in a progress report on the Partnership Framework with Third Countries, an EU strategy for securing African countries’ cooperation in tackling irregular migration. A press release also cited them noting that “results in priority countries are taking shape, including first decreases in migratory flows”.
Except the 1,525 was wrong. A “technical problem” with a database had produced the incorrect figure, according to Monica Chiriac, a spokeswoman for IOM’s Niger office. In fact, IOM had recorded nearly 11,500 migrants heading for the Libyan and Algerian borders in November, a figure that only represented a small drop compared to October.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has been using the incorrect figure to promote the success of the bloc’s policies as it looks to sign agreements linking aid to migration controls with five African countries – Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, and Ethiopia.
A deal, now signed with Niger, involves 610 million euros in development aid, some of which, according to the EU, is not tied to migration cooperation.
Critics say the EU policies largely serve only to push migrants to take more difficult and dangerous routes. They are urging Brussels to propose more legal pathways for refugees and economic migrants.
With arrivals to Italy via Libya and the Central Mediterranean remaining at high levels towards the end of last year, experts and even MEPs had expressed scepticism about the Niger figures. But the EU has continued to refer to them as it pushes ahead on similar cooperation deals.
“There was indeed a mistake in the November report (technical problem with the database update which only reconciled later on). The numbers in the December report are the correct ones. The EU is aware and have since rectified,” Chiriac wrote in an emailed response to an IRIN query.
However, no recent public statements or press releases from the EU have acknowledged the error.
As recently as last Wednesday, the EU issued another press release citing developments in Niger as evidence the Partnership Framework is showing how “effective cooperation can have impact on the flows towards the Mediterranean”.
And a joint communication to the European Parliament and the European Council the same day went further and was still quoting the incorrect figure.
“The work taken forward with Niger under the Partnership Framework should be fully exploited to slow down flows through the southern Libyan border. The number of persons leaving Niger to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Sahara has fallen from over 70,000 in May 2016 to around 1,500 in November 31,” it said.
“This successful model, which has been proven to reduce numbers, should be replicated with other regional partners, notably Mali, Chad, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, as well as in other countries covered by the Khartoum and Rabat processes.”
*In an email to IRIN, an EU spokesperson described the failure to use the correct, updated figure in recent publications as “regrettable” and added that “While we are looking into this internally, this does not change the fact that the Partnership Framework approach is yielding results and that the approach can impact the flows towards the Central Mediterranean.”
*This explanation from the EU came after publication of the initial story and was added later