By Malia Politzer and Emily Kassie

The biggest refugee crisis in recorded history has engulfed continents, swung elections and fueled the rise of nativism.

It has also made a lot of people very, very rich. These are the stories of the CEOs, criminal masterminds, pencil-pushers and low-flying vultures who have figured out how to profit from global instability, also known as human suffering.


The migrant crisis has converted a tiny city in Niger into one of the continent’s most prominent and cruel smuggling hubs. Weapons, drugs, laundered money, hapless migrants, indentured prostitutes—they all pass through Agadez. And then the trouble radiates out from there. (This entire piece was completed with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

On a baking-hot day in August, Bilal Garo, a distant relative of the current sultan of Agadez, was sitting on a carpet on the dusty floor of his traditional mud house. He is more than 80 years old, with deep laugh lines etched around his cataract-clouded brown eyes that have witnessed the transformation of Agadez from a place he loved into a town run by traffickers. “We cannot go back,” he said. “We can only move on.”

In the 15th century, Agadez emerged out of sandy nothingness to become a trading outpost on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Tribesmen would come through town to exchange millet, cloth and gold, before moving on to their next destination. Centuries passed, the city grew and regional tourism replaced low-level trade as the primary driver of the economy (the center of Agadez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Then, beginning in 2007, a series of rebellions scared away the tourists. That was followed by the collapse of Libya, which left the country’s borders open and unguarded and made the smuggling of Africans into Europe a structured, multinational, multi-million dollar industry.

As recently as 2013, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime reported that all the trans-Saharan migrant smuggling networks combined were making $8 to $20 million per year. By 2015, according to the same organization, they were making more than $300 million in Libya alone. And a high percentage of people who travel along the sub-Saharan route have to go through Agadez before heading north. By even the most conservative estimates, migrant traffic (to say nothing of the more profitable trade in weapons and narcotics) brings in about $20 million per year to Agadez, according to Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the Global Initiative.

The Game Got Bigger

The trans-Saharan smuggling business grew wildly between 2013 and 2015. The final number shows how much it was estimated to be worth $323M in 2015—in Libya alone.

As a result, the city’s elite business classes now include drug dealers, smugglers and pimps—the type of people who rape newly trafficked women to “break” them, beat migrants who haven’t paid their passage or bribe officials so that all this illicit work may continue. The downtown is dotted with Western Union signs and storefronts for banks. Brand-new McMansions are sprouting up on the fringes of town. Just taking photographs of these homes can be dangerous.

The criminal influence of smugglers can seem inescapable here. Consider the tiny corner store that sells baby shampoo, diapers and grain staples that could somehow afford an air-conditioning unit and flat-screen TV, rare luxuries in this part of the world. If you walk through the back door into an open-air courtyard, you’ll find its real income source: a dozen near-starving migrants, sleeping on plastic mats, waiting to be loaded onto trucks destined for Libya. Then there’s the Nigerian restaurant that doubles as a brothel, located on a road a short stroll from the main mosque. After the sun goes down and devout Muslims answer the fifth and final call to prayer, the pimps release the prostitutes they lock up all day into the streets to approach potential clients.

The government has made some cursory attempts to crack down on all this misconduct, but mainly it just finds ways to benefit from it. Before leaving for Libya, smuggling vehicles are stopped by police who demand a “transportation tax” of $3 to $80. The reason for that wide margin is that only a few bucks goes to the city of Agadez; the rest presumably lines the border agents’ pockets. (All figures in this section have been converted from CFA francs to dollars).

As long as there’s poverty and unrest that makes people want to leave their homelands, and as long as people can find a way to profit off migration, the smuggling business will continue. Migrants and refugees will suffer, criminals will enrich themselves and Bilal Garo’s hometown will become even more treacherous.

The Unvirtuous Cycle

Here’s what the Agadez-based smuggling operation actually looks like.

The Escape : In high season, an estimated 5,000 people from neighboring countries arrive in Agadez each week in the hopes of eventually making it to Europe.

The Wait : These people are housed in ghettos until they are stuffed onto trucks headed for Libya.

The Secret Cargo : But unbeknownst to the migrants or the drivers, some of the trucks are also loaded up with drugs and foreign currency.

The Fire : Once the drivers offload the migrants, drugs and money in Libya, their trucks are packed with fresh contraband for the return journey—usually weapons.

The Twist : After being sold in Agadez, these weapons will often end up in the hands of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Qaeda in Mali—the groups many of the migrants were fleeing from in the first place.

The Players : Now, let’s meet the people who make the system go round and round.


The Passers