ARLIT, Niger: The short dusty street in Arlit, a mining town in northern Niger, is a sad and seedy place. Faces of young women, many of them from Nigeria, appear in the cracks of doorways, offering their bodies in exchange for money. A once-quiet town has been turned upside-down by a population influx. A major cause is a gold rush that has sucked in fortune seekers from southern Niger and the country’s neighbors. But there is also a buildup of migrants from across West Africa, who pass through this crossroads town on their desperate trek to Europe. The inflow is creating economic and social strains in a remote and conservative region whose culture prides itself on welcoming strangers.

“Cohabitation with non-Muslims is a bit difficult, especially with these ‘free women’,” said Issa, a trader, using the local term for sex workers. “It’s giving the neighborhood a bad name.” Nadya, a prostitute in her thirties with two children, said, “We don’t have any problems with people here.” She added, “I do it for them—I really need the money.” Arlit lies in harsh terrain a couple of hundred kilometers (around 120 miles) from Algeria’s southern border, between the Sahara and the eastern rim of the Air mountains.

The gold rush has helped cause the population of towns in the Agadez region, which includes Arlit, to double in a decade, officials estimate. Migrants But there is also a huge transient population of West African migrants desperate to get to Europe to start a new life. Many are in Arlit on their way to the Algerian border, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) away—and many are stranded in the town after being sent back by Algeria. A Togolese couple, Ickbal and Yasmine, queued for help at a centre set up by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). “We have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, it’s very difficult,” said Ickbal, a student.

“I have been asking for food for my fiancee from our Nigerien brothers. They are very kind, but we can’t do this all the time.” “We don’t have the additional money to cope with the extra needs in terms of sanitation or schooling—it goes beyond our budget,” said Arlit’s mayor, Abdourahamane Mouali. “But the migrants are there and we have to deal with the situation, if only from a humanitarian point of view.” In 2015, Niger approved a law based on the 2000 Palermo Convention on human trafficking, criminalizing support for illegal border crossings and for unauthorized stays on its territory.

The law wiped out a flourishing part of the local economy, which provided transport, food and shelter to the migrants. The IOM, the biggest international humanitarian organization in Arlit, is investing in so-called stabilization programs—initiatives such as water wells, sanitation and job creation schemes that help to show local people that migrants are not being unfairly favored. But the needs are huge. In 2022, the number of stranded migrants seeking help from the agency rose by 35 percent to more than 17,000. Funding from international donors meanwhile has declined, forcing many schemes to end, according to local officials.

Crime and jihadism Many locals are convinced that the population explosion has led to crime, including frequent armed attacks. “The migrants leave us in peace—they even respect Nigerien law more than Nigeriens do,” said Issa, the trader. “It’s the gold miners who are the source of the problems.” On Sunday, five soldiers were killed in an ambush by unidentified gunmen as they were escorting a convoy of miners from the gold rush site of Tchibarakaten, a security source and media said. “Quantities of gold were probably carried off,” according to a local elected official.

lit also lies several hundred kilometers from Mali, the nexus of a bloody jihadist insurgency that has expanded into Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger. “For the time being, the region is stable, but we don’t know how long it will last,” said Ibrahim Rixa Issa, a vice chairman in the regional council. The vast desert border is highly porous. “We only have two border posts on a line of 2,000 kilometers, and we don’t have enough money to do air surveillance,” said the region’s governor, Magagi Maman Dada. – AFP