NIAMEY, Niger — In a bare suite of prefab offices, inside a compound off a dirt road, French bureaucrats are pushing France’s borders thousands of miles into Africa, hoping to head off would-be migrants.
All day long, in a grassy courtyard, they interview asylum seekers, as the African reality they want to escape swirls outside — donkey carts and dust, joblessness and poverty, and, in special cases, political persecution.
If the French answer is yes to asylum, they are given plane tickets to France and spared the risky journey through the desert and on the deadly boats across the Mediterranean that have brought millions of desperate migrants to Europe in recent years, transforming its politics and societies.
“We’re here to stop people from dying in the Mediterranean,” said Sylvie Bergier-Diallo, the deputy chief of the French mission in Niger.
But very few are actually approved, and so the French delegation is also there to send a message to other would-be migrants: stay home, and do not risk a perilous journey for an asylum claim that would ultimately be denied in France.
The French outpost is part of a new forward defense in Europe’s struggle to hold off migration from Africa; it is a small, relatively benign piece of a larger strategy that otherwise threatens to subvert Europe’s humanitarian ideals.
After years of being buffeted by uncontrolled migration, Europe is striking out. Italy is suspected of quietly cutting deals with Libyan warlords who control the migration route. The European Union has sent delegations to African capitals, waving aid and incentives for leaders to keep their people at home. Now come the French.
“There’s a much more active approach to see that the immigrant stays as far as way as possible from Europe, and this is completely to the detriment of those concerned,” said Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch.
The French mission was “positive,” he said, “but it’s too late and too small.”
It is also the flip side of a fast-toughening stance by France against migrants, as President Emmanuel Macron began his push this month for what critics say is a draconian new law aimed at sending many of those who have already arrived back home.
Even if some of Europe’s new methods are questionable, the results have been evident: Last year, for the first time since the crisis began several years ago, the migration flow was reversed, according to Giuseppe Loprete, head of the United Nations migration agency office in Niger.
About 100,000 would-be migrants returned through Niger from Libya compared with 60,000 who traversed the vast and impoverished desert country heading toward Europe.
As the hub for West African migration, Niger had long been under pressure from Europe to crackdown on the migrant flow. And something has shifted.
The bus stations in Niamey, once packed with West Africans trying to get to Agadez, the last city before Libya, are now empty. The police sternly check identity documents.
When I visited Agadez three years ago, migrants packed what locals called “ghettos” at the edge of town, hanging out for weeks in the courtyards of unfinished villas waiting for a chance to cross the desert.
Migration officials say there are many fewer now. The Nigerien government has impounded dozens of the pickups formerly used by smugglers at Agadez, they say.
“Lot less, lot less than before,” said a bus agent, who declined to give his name, at the open-air Sonef station in Niamey, drowsing and empty in the late-afternoon heat. “It’s not like it was. Before it was full.”
The tile floor was once crowded with migrants. No more. A sign outside bears the European Union flag and warns passengers not to travel without papers.
In itself, the so-called French filtration effort in Niger is so small that it is not responsible for the drop, nor is it expected to have much affect on the overall migration flow.
It began well after the drop was underway. Only a handful of such missions to interview asylum seekers have embarked since President Macron announced the policy last summer, staying for about a week at a time.
Meager as it is, however, the French effort has already helped shift the process of sifting some asylum claims to Africa and out of Europe, where many of those who are denied asylum tend to stay illegally.
For Mr. Macron, a chief aim is to defuse the political pressures at home from the far right that have mounted with the migrant crisis.
The French hope that the greater visibility of a formal, front-end system will discourage those without credible claims of asylum from risking their lives in the hands of smugglers.
The process is also intended to send a potentially important message: that those with legitimate claims of persecution do have a chance for safe passage.
“Politically it’s huge,” said Mr. Loprete. “But in terms of numbers it is very low.”
In a recent week, 85 people were interviewed by the four functionaries from the French refugee agency, known as Ofpra, before they packed up and went home.
The selective scale is in line with Mr. Macron’s determination to keep out economic migrants. “We can’t welcome everybody,” he said in his New Year’s speech.
On the other hand, “we must welcome the men and women fleeing their country because they are under threat,” Mr. Macron said. They have a “right to asylum,” he said.
Critics of the plan say that it amounts to only a token effort, and that the real goal is to keep potential migrants at arms’ length.
“Macron’s policy is to divide migrants and refugees, but how can we do so? What is the ethical principle behind this choice?” said Mauro Armanino, an Italian priest at the cathedral in Niamey who has long worked with migrants in African. “It is a policy without heart.”
Still, the French have been the first to undertake this kind of outreach, working closely with the United Nations, out of its refugee agency’s compound in Niamey.
The United Nations International Office for Migration agency does a first vetting for the French in Libya, Niger’s northern neighbor, where human smuggling networks have thrived in the chaotic collapse of the country.
In Libya, the smugglers herd the Africans together, beat them, sometimes rape them and extort money. Some are even sold into slavery before being loaded onto rickety boats for the Mediterranean crossing.
Some of the Libyan camps are run by smugglers and their associated militias, others by the government, such as it is. But regardless who runs them, they are essentially concentration camps, officials say, and there is no distinction made between political refugees and migrants.
United Nations officials are allowed to enter the government-run camps to look for potential asylum cases — principally Eritreans and Somalians, whose flight from political persecution and chaos might qualify them. From lists supplied by the United Nation, the French choose whom they will interview.
“The idea is to protect people who might have a right to asylum,” said Pascal Brice, the head of Ofpra, the French refugee agency. “And to bypass the horrors of Libya and the Mediterranean.”
“It is limited,” Mr. Brice acknowledged. “But the president has said he wants to cut back on the sea crossings,” he added, referring to Mr. Macron.
Bénédicte Jeannerod, who heads the French office of Human Rights Watch, was less a critic of the program itself than of its scale. “I’ve told Pascal Brice that as long as it works, make it bigger,” he said.
But the potential difficulties of making the program larger were evident in a day of interviews at the sweltering United Nations center in Niamey.
One recent Saturday night, 136 Eritreans and Somalis were flown to Niamey by the United Nations, all potential candidates for asylum interviews with the French.
The dozens of asylum seekers already there waited pensively, looking resigned as they sat on benches, betraying no sign of the import of what the French deputy chief of the mission had to offer.
“If you are chosen, you will soon be in France,” Ms. Bergier-Diallo told them, pronouncing the words slowly and deliberately. “And we are delighted.”
Indeed, if the refugees pass muster, the rewards are enormous: a free plane ticket to France, free housing, hassle-free residence papers and free French lessons.
The French agents, stiff and formal in their questioning that could last well over an hour, inquired relentlessly about the refugees’ family ties, uninterested in establishing the narrative of their escape and suffering.
The idea was to “establish the family context,” in an effort to confirm the authenticity of the refugees’ origins, said one French official, Lucie.
(Sensitive to security, the French authorities asked that their last names of their agents and those of the refugees not be published).
Shewit, a diminutive, bespectacled 26-year-old Eritrean woman, was asked whether she ever phoned her family, and if so what they talked about.
“Only about my health,” Shewit said. “I never tell them where I am.”
Mariam, 27, told the French agent she had been raped and ostracized in her village, and feared going back because “the people who raped me are still there.”
“They could rape me again,” said Mariam, an illiterate animal herder from Somaliland.
Even if she finds safety in France, integrating her into society will be a difficult challenge. Mariam had never attended any school and looked bewildered when the French agent told her to remove her head-scarf.
Wearing the scarf “is not possible in the French administration, or in schools,” Emoline, the agent, said gently to Mariam in English, through an interpreter.
Then, there was Welella, an 18-year-old Eritrean girl who, before being rescued from neighboring Libya, had spent time in a refugee camp in Sudan, where she endured what she simply called “punishments.”
Her father is a soldier, her siblings had all been drafted into Eritrea’s compulsory military service, and she risked the same.
“Why is military service compulsory in Eritrea?” Lucie asked the girl, seated opposite her. “I don’t know,” Welella answered mechanically.
She had long planned on fleeing. “One day I succeeded,” she said simply.
“What could happen to you in Eritrea if you returned?” Lucie asked.
“I suffered a lot leaving Eritrea,” Welella said slowly. “If I return, they will put me underground.”
She was questioned over and over about the names of her siblings in Eritrea, and why one had traveled to a particular town.
After nearly two hours of questioning, a hint of the French agent’s verdict finally came — in English. It was rote, but the message clear: France was one step away from welcoming Welella.
“You will have the right to enter France legally,” Lucie told her. “You will be granted a residence permit, you will be given your own accommodations, you will have the right to work…”
Welella smiled, barely.