"I have never been to school. My parents are poor and don't have the means to support our family. My father had two wives and fourteen children. So, one day, we left with my father and one of his wives, and headed to Algeria to beg," says eleven-year-old Yacouba.
Located in southeastern Niger, Yacouba is from the Maramou village in the Kantché department, bordering Nigeria in the Zinder region. Zinder is the country's third-largest city and a migration hub, being a departure point for many Nigeriens. Since 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided 629 Nigerien migrants from Zinder with voluntary return assistance in Niger, including 55 from Kantché.
In this department of southern Niger, migration is an ancestral phenomenon, rooted in the culture of the communities. Originally, migration was directed towards Nigeria. However, in the early 2000s, the context and trends evolved; many people from Kantché switched their final destination to North Africa. Populations, including women and children, started moving to urban centres or Algeria to join begging networks or to conduct other informal activities.
Yacouba is among many children from Kantché that had left with his siblings to reach Algeria in search of means of subsistence.
"We first went to Maradi. I had to go and beg every day to bring back money for my father. I would wake up early in the morning to go to the streets, train stations and travel agencies where I would be lucky enough to get a coin. Then, I would return in the evening to bring the money back to my father," Yacouba recounts his experience on his way to Algeria.
The money Yacouba collected was intended to fund the rest of the journey to Algeria.
"After staying in Maradi for a few months, we headed for Tahoua [in the mid-west of Niger], and then Agadez [in the north], the entry point for Algeria," he adds.
But a tragedy suddenly put an end to the family's migration project. "We had a serious accident on the road to Tahoua. My father died on the spot, and his wife later died at the hospital," says Yacouba.
From that moment, Yacouba was taken care of by the regional directorate for the promotion of women and the protection of children in Tahoua. He was then referred to the centre for the victims of trafficking in Zinder.
This government-run facility, the only one in Niger, is located in the region of Zinder. IOM provides technical and financial support to the centre, which serves as a shelter for the victims of trafficking, and also provides them with health and psychosocial as well as food support, family tracing and clothing, among other services.
After his stay at the centre, Yacouba returned to Maramou where his mother benefited from a reintegration project to sell cereals, which allowed her to provide for her son and other children.
Yacouba is one of the 10 children who receive reintegration assistance by IOM in Kantché. Most of them returned from Libya and Algeria where they were all forced into begging to provide for the elders.
Upon return, these children benefit from this support to cope with the sequels of their journey and build a new life at home. To help them settle, and to find their way back to school, an economic reintegration is granted to their relatives who are looking after them.
In the village of Tsaouni, also in the department of Kantché, a groundnut oil extraction project is helping 17 child returnees, between 6 and 16, rebuild their lives. The group had returned from Mali, where they were exploited. Their parents had entrusted them to four men who escorted them to Mali, and initiated them into begging en route and once they reached Mali.
Today, the groundnut oil extraction project offers an economic opportunity to the mothers of child returnees, allowing them to make a living and avoiding sending them into forced begging.
"Our lives have changed. We use newly harvested groundnuts to extract the oil. We sell the produce locally or at the Matameye market in Kantché. Originally, the lack of resources pushed us to migrate irregularly and send our children to beg, but since the groundnut oil extraction project is in place, we think it is no longer worth taking all these risks," said a mother of one of the child returnees.
"Departures of our children have decreased considerably. We can even say that it has stopped in the village. Children no longer leave our villages. The main cause of the departures was the search for a livelihood, and with the outcomes of the project, a solution has been found," she added.
According to a recent IOM study, profiling the victims of trafficking in Niger between 2017 and 2021, 666 victims of trafficking were assisted at IOM's transit centres in Niger for vulnerable migrants, the government-run centre in Zinder, or outside these centres. 23 per cent of victims of trafficking had been exploited to beg. They were all children, with the youngest victim being only four months old. This phenomenon was particularly widespread in the department of Kantché.
The return and reintegration of migrants has been made possible thanks to the support of the Government of the Netherlands through Phase 3 of the MIRAA (Migrants Rescue and Assistance in Agadez Region) project.