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Localization of EU Migration Governance in Niger: The Role of Local Actors

Balkissa Diallo

Non-state and state actors each play critical roles in the governance of African informal migration to Europe from Niger. Since the Valletta conference in 2015 following the European migration “crisis”, and the launch of the EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTFA), EU migration management policy is being adapted at the local level, with Niger becoming a strategic country for its implementation. This has been referred to as the EU’s project to externalize its borders to sending regions such as Niger (Pastore and Roman, 2020; Boyer et al., 2020). Externalization involves agreements with Europe’s partner countries to allow deported persons in their territory and to apply similar policies to border control (Akkerman, 2018). In Niger, such migration management has gained momentum. How are local actors in Niger adapting to these new policy norms?

This essay offers a sending region perspective on the phenomenon of externalization by reconceptualizing African “irregular” migration to Europe as African informal migration, and reconceptualizing externalization as localization. It relies on preliminary field work, documents and observation, to explore norm localization theory (Acharya, 2004). It argues that local actors are adapting to these new EU migration management policy norms through a localization process. There is a selection, refinement, and reframing of the current migration governance approach to be in accordance with existing practices and beliefs. Local agents in this context are not mere recipients of these new migration management norms. They exercise their agency in the application of these new norms to make them acceptable within the existing normative context. The first part of this essay conceptualizes the phenomenon as African informal migration to Europe instead of “irregular” migration to position this research within a sending region perspective (West Africa). The second part uses data collected from my preliminary field work in Niger to examine local actors’ adaptation to the EU’s migration management norms. With this new influence of the EU’s informed policies in Niger, and production of discourses on this phenomenon from receiving regions being dominant, African informal migration is being subject to strategies that aim to counter “irregular” migration to Europe. These efforts are being enforced in a site where migration is an integral part of history (Mounkaila, 2007) and this is deepened with the 1979 ECOWAS’s protocol on the free movement of goods and persons. Defining these dynamics as “irregular” migration when trying to make sense of this phenomenon in West Africa limit our understanding of these movements; and hence how these international migration regulations are received at the local level. Investigating African informal migration from Niger to Europe, my research shows norm localization taking place. Using preliminary research findings conducted in April and May 2021 in Niger based on discussions with experts, state actors, the consultation of documents and my observation, this analysis uses norm localization theory to explain how the European “irregular” migration policy norm is being integrated at the local level in Niger.

African Informal “Irregular” Migration to Europe from West Africa

An “irregular” migrant is defined as someone who violates the immigration policy of a country.  Scholars define an irregular migrant as someone who crosses a border without appropriate documentation, breaches the conditions for entering another country, or remains in a country in violation of the immigration policy. This definition includes those who have been smuggled, trafficked, or who abuse the asylum system (Koser, 2005; Kuschminder, De Bresser, and Siegel, 2015; Ayuba, Muhammad Ribadu, 2018). Accordingly, what makes a migrant “irregular” is the action of entering another country or remaining within it without legal documentations, or without meeting the criteria for admission. Although this understanding is positioned within the immigration jurisdiction in most countries, it has created a divide in the literature, especially on the question of what governance prerogatives make an individual “irregular”.

Cvajner and Sciortino (2010) argue that “irregular” migration is rooted in the structural inconsistency between social and political conditions for migration. In a similar vein, Rajaram and GrandyWarr (2004) suggest that the “irregular” migration definition is contingent on political will to establish a migration regime where at the bottom lies a category of individuals defined by the denial of membership. As such, rules about what makes an individual “irregular” can vary depending on each country’s legal framing of irregular migration (such as shown in Duvel, 2011 study in the EU). In West Africa, “irregular” migration is the Trans-Saharan movement of people to North Africa and Europe. Studies on these movements are mainly dominated by a receiving country’s perspective (De Haas et al., 2020). As Roseman (1974) previously identified, there are four approaches in migration research. The first focuses on the movement across political and statistical unit boundaries. The second looks at the consequence of migration and its impact on migration destination areas. The third deals with migration and its temporal dimension (i.e., when, and how often people move). Finally, the fourth examines migration as a behavioral process including decision making and information gathering process. An “irregular” migrant is therefore someone who resides in a country or crosses a country’s borders without proper documentation, and usually understood through the perspective of their impacts in receiving countries (i.e., Europe). Here, African migration is seen as undesirable since the perceived consequences of these passages are the production of more irregular migrants at the shores of Europe. Adopting this perspective to study West African migration conceals the migration dynamics within the region as well as regional policies regulating these movements. Migration within West Africa is higher than intercontinental migration to Europe (IOM, 2020).

The 1979 ECOWAS protocol on the free movements of persons and goods in the region authorizes West African nationals to move freely in the region (Manchuelle, 1997; Adepoju, 2007), making their movements informal rather than irregular. The use of “informal” migration instead of “irregular” migration centers a sending region perspective (i.e., West Africa) and makes sense of these movements by looking at them as movement across political boundaries, as a temporal dimension, and as a behavioral process that includes decision making and information gathering. I use informal migration to describe voluntary African migration from and within the ECOWAS region via unofficial and official means. The paper then examines how governance norms about “irregular” migration are being integrated locally in Niger, which serves as a “transit” passage for migrants aiming to go to Europe. Using the norm localization theory developed by Acharya (2004), the section below looks at how local actors are reacting to new migration norms.

Local Actors and EU African Migration Governance in Niger: Resistance, Reframing, Adaptation and Amplification

Norms can be defined as intersubjective standards of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity (Avant and Finnemore, 2010). In looking at local actors’ reactions to transnational norms, Acharya (2004) developed a theoretical framework for understanding how new norms are diffused by emphasizing the agency and role of norm-takers through a dynamic congruencebuilding process referred to as localization. Beyond local actors’ acceptance or rejection of outside norms, he describes localization as a process and outcome whereby norm takers build congruence between transnational norms, and local belief and practices. This process allows foreign norms to be incorporated into local norms. Hence, the success of diffusing a norm relies on the extent to which it provides an opportunity for localization. Acharya (2004) goes further to argue that this process may begin with a reinterpretation and re-representation of the outside norm but may also take the form of more complex processes of reconstitution to make an outside norm congruent with a preexisting local normative order. In this mechanism, the role of local actors is crucial.

This form of norm localization can be seen in informal migration from Niger to Europe. Niger has long attracted West African migrants who transit in the region to go to North Africa, where some go on to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Such migration has been a way of life even before independence. As a state official in Niger explains it, the harvest season in the region means more migration. It is a time when most migrants have been able to save from their earnings to travel. He further notes that there is a tendency to focus on migrants whose intent is to go to Europe, but often those migrating were either on their way to Algeria or Libya. When asked about instances when actors usually meet to discuss migration, he stated that, “It is during the harvest season that we meet to discuss migration subjects given the number of migrants in that time being sent back from those countries.”

While migration from Niger to the Mediterranean has been taking place for decades, controlling migration was not a priority in Niger. Such movements were considered “normal”; especially since they are often temporary and seasonal (Di Bartolomeo, Jaulin, and Perrin, 2011; Mounkaila, 2021). The death of the Kantche women in the Desert changed this (Boyer et al., 2020). It happened in 2013 when ninety-two migrants, mostly women and children from Kantche in the region of Zinder, died in the Sahara Desert on their way to North Africa. The tragedy prompted three national days of mourning. As noted in a news report, a government official expressed that, “this tragedy is as a result of criminal activities piloted by traffickers networks of all sorts.” Following this, policy actions were taken to close migrants’ camps in Agadez and to prosecute all actors involved in the ‘traffic’ of migrants (Franceinfo, 2013).

The mediatization of these movements in Europe generating fear of migrants contributed to misinterpreting all trans-Saharan migration as trans-Mediterranean migration (Brachet, 2011). As one expert observed in an interview, the fact that these movements took place in the open made them less dangerous, while the new laws restricting these passages and enforcing the criminalization of these trans-Saharan movements have made them more dangerous. He also added that, “the danger was there. But at least the smugglers were documented and were part of a convoy. They were registered.” While migrants continue to use those pathways, they are more vulnerable as they are hiding to travel, which makes them easy targets for some smugglers. These consequences on migrants (i.e., tragic death, trafficking, and being abandoned in the desert) became a problem for the Niger authorities.

A new policy that aims to control these movements was introduced in 2015 (the Law 2015-36) following the Valletta conference. This new policy criminalizes illicit trafficking of people while portraying migrants as victims of such trafficking. As the law stipulates in article 10, “Every person who intentionally or to derive a certain indirect or direct financial benefit or other material benefits, ensures the illegal entry or exit of a non-national or a permanent resident in Niger” is considered a criminal. In this regard, after the Valetta Summit (Boyer, Ayouba and Mounkaila 2020), Niger became a key partner for the EU with the establishment of the EU trust Fund (EUTF) in 2015. This established an externalization of EU migration policies and the production of a national narrative on migration. These are reframed at the local scale and part of an opportunistic strategy bargained from new migration controls (Boyer, Ayouba Tinni, and Mounkaila, 2020). This shows that local actors especially in the region of Agadez are not passive norm takers of this new policy; rather there is a reinterpretation of this new policy norm at the local level. In Acharya (2004) definition of localization, he states that it is an active construction of foreign ideas (through discourse, framing, grafting and cultural selection) by local actors to build congruence with local beliefs and practices. In this process local actors’ agency is essential. This trajectory can be observed in the case of Niger where local actors are reinterpreting these “external” policy norms to fit their identities. In this context, as the theory suggests, localization is facilitated when these actors perceive these new norms as tools to enhance the legitimacy and authority of their existing institutions and practices without essentially altering their social identity.

The first step towards localization is resistance and contestation. This is mainly because local actors may perceive these new norms as a threat to their existing beliefs and practices and thus their legitimacy. The contestation of EU “irregular” migration governance can be seen through the production of the ‘transit’ and ‘anti-transit’ as observed during a discussion with an expert. As he told me, “the management of the anti-transit is delegated to international actors which creates a contestation from local actors in Agadez”. This makes the ‘anti-transit’, which is constituted of the physical presence of international organizations visible while the ‘transit’ became invisible given the criminalization of such activity. These are smugglers who depend on the revenues they make from passing migrants through the Sahara Desert. This resistance leads to localization when these local actors perceive these new norms as ways to contribute to their legitimacy.

The second step towards localization involves local actors borrowing and framing these recent norms to establish their values to the local audience. As observed in the case of Niger and Agadez particularly, the smugglers have organized into an association (L’Association des Anciens Passeurs) which convenes ex-smugglers. These associations include ex-smugglers and their wives as well as local state actors who are positioning themselves in this new norm and its benefits (Boyer, Tinni, and Mounkaila, 2020).


The third step is adaptation. Here, these external norms are reframed to fit local beliefs and practices. This is done when local actors redefine the external norm by associating it with specific existing local norms and practices and refining the former by selecting those elements which fit the local normative structure and rejecting some. From observation, this tendency can be seen with how these movements are being framed in Niger. For instance, currently, there are two types of migrants whose intent is to go to Europe: the transit migrant and the refugee/asylum seeker. Refugees/asylum seekers are migrants who have been repatriated to Niger either from Algeria or Libya, and those from Sudan and Eritrea who are awaiting the processing of their asylum application. Transit migrants are those coming from countries in West Africa and who are using Niger as a transit passage – and use services from smugglers - to cross the Sahara Desert in hopes of going to Europe. While EU global migration governance frame these migrants as “irregular”, we see at the local level these migrants being reframed as either transit migrants or refugees/asylum seekers. Irregularity in this context, comprises the process through which migrants move (i.e., their helpers, their transporters, and smugglers) who can face criminal charges with the enforcement of the law 2015-36. Finally, amplification takes place whereby new instruments and practices are put into place from different sets of values and practices in which local influences prevail.


We can see this happening with the passing of Niger’s 2020-2035 national migration law. The regulation seemingly comes as a response to criticisms of the law 2015-36 which led to the criminalization of migrants (Moser, 2020; Harouna, 2021). This new law calls into action the engagement of both state and non-state actors to address the question of African migration in Niger. Through this holistic approach, the law seeks to promote a participatory, inclusive, multisectoral migration policy approach that considers the local context. As such, the goal of the policy is also to empower local authorities to manage migration through decentralization. These include the provision of funding and capacity building to integrate migration management in their policies. We see here that there is a greater acceptance of a migration management policy that will address the human insecurity consequences of migration, such as programs to protect the rights of migrants and promote integration, and that criminalizes those who facilitate clandestine movement. Moreover, the capacity building for managing migration being established at the level of local authorities includes the recognition of non-state actors such as associations for ex-smugglers (“ex-passeurs”).


Following localization theory, the diffusion of EU migration management norms in Niger is facilitated by the fact that these new norms are enhancing the legitimacy and authority of local actors and their existing institutions and practices. In this regard, though migration management norms in the region are influenced by the EU, local actors in the region are not passive recipients of this new approach to migration. There is an active reinterpretation of these norms to fit the existing normative structure. In the same vein, the use of “irregular” migration in this context to describe the movements of African migrants via unauthorized channels to Europe undermines this localization process and the norms that regulate these dynamics in this sending region.


State and non-state actors’ dynamics in the governance of African informal migration to Europe is dominated by the introduction of the EU’s global migration governance that followed the Valetta conference in 2015. Contextualizing these interactions within a sending region’s normative structure shows local actors’ agency who are more than passive ‘recipients’ of these international norms. Through a localization process, they play an active role in the diffusion of these new norms. This is taking place through the framing of the national migration management as a holistic approach to not only derive the benefits of migration, but also to offer protection to migrants transiting through Niger. Criminalization here is applied to those who help migrants on the journey to the desert while providing an opportunity for ex-smugglers to participate in this governance. This process is facilitated by the fact that the diffusion of this new migration management norm enhances local actors’ authority and legitimacy. Whereby different local authorities in Niger can access resources to manage migration in their respective cities, and ex-smugglers can maintain a sense of legitimacy by actively contributing to this process while receiving incentives to transition to a different activity. In this sense, this paper argues that while EU externalization of its migration governance to Niger have influenced the approach to migration in the region, local actors are not mere recipients of these new norms. They contribute to its diffusion through a reinterpretation, selection, reframing, and refining of the original policy to align it with pre-existing norms.

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