On the edge of the Sahara, people mourn the decline of people-smuggling


ON JUNE 14th the Sultan of Aïr, the traditional leader of the Touareg people of Agadez, came out to pray. It was a grand spectacle. Thousands had gathered to mark the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at a huge open ground. When the Sultan had finished praying, he rode back to his palace, flanked by nobles on horseback and tootling trumpeters. In the streets everyone was smiling and waving. It must have been a relief for the Sultan: a few blessed hours of not having to listen to his subjects moaning about the collapse of the people-smuggling trade.

For centuries Agadez, home to perhaps 200,000 people, has lived off trans-Saharan commerce. Once camel trains set off from here with slaves, pilgrims, salt and gold. More recently it has prospered from a boom in the traffic of people north across the sands to the Mediterranean and onward to Europe. Many Europeans think of this flow of people as a vast, terrifying flood. It has prompted Italy to close its ports to rescue ships, and almost led…

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