AGADEZ, Niger (Reuters) - In the desert town of Agadez in central Niger, almost anyone can tell you where to find the smugglers' compounds concealing African migrants headed for Europe and when the weekly convoy departs across the Sahara.
Almost anyone, except the police.
At a checkpoint on the outskirts of town, police officers turned a blind eye as dozens of smuggler's trucks packed with migrants drove past at nightfall on a regular Monday convoy, starting a three-day drive across the desert to Libya.
"We cannot stop the migrant trucks. They do not pass by here," said one of the policemen, gesturing vaguely to the blackness. "They go around us, far off in the desert."
Once two migrant trucks have passed, a turbaned fixer hired by a smuggler to pay off the police got back on his scooter and drove away, his work done.
A confidential government report into illegal migration in Agadez, seen by Reuters, concluded that corruption was so entrenched here that to tackle migrant smuggling would require replacing almost all military and police officials.
A record 100,000 migrants are expected to cross Niger this year into Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), taking advantage of the chaos in the north African country that has given smugglers an open door to Europe.
The European Union believes just over half the migrants arriving in Italy travel first through Niger and is growing alarmed by the flood of people setting forth in rickety boats from the Libya shores.
More than 1,800 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone and Europe is looking to Niger for action.
President Mahamadou Issoufou's government passed a tough anti-migrant smuggling law last month that establishes prison terms of up to 30 years for smugglers, in what it said was a bid to protect vulnerable young Africans.
Not only are many migrants exploited by smugglers, falling victim to forced labor or prostitution, but countless die in the desert when vehicles break down or they are abandoned.
Officials in Niger, ranked as the poorest country on earth by the United Nations, know that implementing the new law means cracking down on endemic graft in a country where a young policeman earns less than $190 a month.
"For a truck of illegal migrants to cross Niger and reach Libya, many officials must turn a blind eye," said Goge Maimouna Gazibo, head of Niger's National Agency for the Fight Against People Smuggling (ANLTP), a government body.
"From now on, any official who allows a bus to cross a border will be considered guilty of smuggling and corruption."
Niger has tried before to curb migration. After 92 migrants were found dead in the desert in 2013, the government launched raids on several smugglers compounds, known as 'ghettos', and replaced a handful of police officers.
Two years on, little has changed. Flows from countries like Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Ghana are higher than ever, while both migrants and smugglers testified they were obliged to bribe police, in a racket worth millions of dollars a year.
A Reuters team witnessed how, on the road north from the capital Niamey, police systematically took migrants aside at checkpoints to demand payment. Although citizens of West African countries have the right to travel in Niger, many migrants say they prefer not to show their identity papers for fear they will be confiscated by corrupt police.
"If they stop you, you have to pay," said Lamine Bandaogo, a lean 17-year-old fleeing poverty in Burkina Faso, as he stood in a bus depot on the route to Agadez, saying bribes range between $2 and $20. "If you have nothing, you must beg forgiveness."
Since winning power in 2011, President Issoufou has made some progress in curbing graft. Niger has risen to 103rd place in Transparency International's 2014 survey of graft perceptions from 134th the year he took office.
Yet some question if security forces are ready to forego lucrative revenues from migration. A confidential 2013 national police report concluded that Agadez, which acts as a gateway to the north, was an 'El Dorado' for security forces.
It found there were more than 70 smugglers 'ghettos' active in the town, each one protected by a paid police agent.
A separate report by the HALCIA anti-corruption agency the same year said that payments to security forces and local authorities totaled $450 per vehicle and $30 per foreign migrant on the route between Agadez and the Libyan border.
The HALCIA mission found that bribes paid by migrants were essential to keep the security forces functioning as money earmarked in the military budget to buy diesel for vehicles, spare parts and food simply disappeared in Niamey.
"The security forces recognize that they take money but they have no choice. That is money they use to do their jobs," said Ousmane Baydo, deputy head of HALCIA who conducted the mission.
In an effort to bypass corrupt security forces, the new law places the legal responsibility on transport companies plying the route to Agadez to ensure travelers have valid documents.
"Any transport company that doesn't check documents, we'll prosecute them for complicity," Gazibo said, adding this should help to reduce migrant numbers by next year.
"Once we have confiscated two or three buses, the transport companies will start to cooperate."
Justice Minister Amadou Marou said Niger cannot tackle the problem alone and has appealed to neighboring countries to adopt similar laws punishing those who profit from illegal migration and to agree terms for the repatriation of migrants.
Niger officials are concerned that any unilateral expulsion of West African citizens could lead to tit-for-tat measures.
Niger plans to create 'welcome centers' in Agadez to try to prevent migrants from falling into the hands of smugglers, to inform them of the risks of the perilous journey, and to return those wanting to go back to their own countries.
"This is not a law to protect Europe," Marou told Reuters. "We have done this to save lives because African governments also have a responsibility."
But with some poor West African states reliant on remittances from migrants, question marks remain over how determined they are to combat illegal migration.
Marou said Europe needed to respond by making legal immigration easier. "If it is possible for a European citizens to come to Africa, it should be just as easy for Africans to go to there."
Niger is the largest per capita recipient of European aid, with some 600 million euros ($680 million) earmarked between now and 2020. EU ambassador Raul Mateus Paula said that would be boosted by at least 30 million euros this year.
An EU police training mission will open an office in Agadez and focus its activities on migrant smuggling. The EU will also contribute to the centers to inform and repatriate migrants.
Yet Niger and its European partners recognize that, if they are to stem the flows, migrants and smugglers alike need economic alternatives.
The 2013 national police report warned that Agadez lived from smuggling and any attempts to end it could lead to riots. With tourism devastated by Islamic militancy in the Sahara, many in the town say they have nothing else to live from.
A smuggler can make 3 million CFA francs ($5,212) with just one 4x4 packed with 30 migrants -- a fortune in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day. Dozens of ghettos lie behind red mud walls on Agadez’s dirty backstreets, with metal gates offering glimpses of groups of young men inside.
"They cannot stop migration completely. If there was no immigration, Agadez would grind to a halt," said Bashir, who owns a migrant ‘ghetto’. He says he is getting out of the business because of the new law and wants himself to emigrate.
"If Europe would give us money, then we would stay here."
Giuseppe Loprete, local head of the IOM, said migrants who have sold everything to pay for their trip are ready to die rather than return empty handed to even worse poverty. The solution is to provide would-be migrants better information on the risks so they do not leave in the first place, he said.
The IOM is training members of Western African communities in Niamey to explain the dangers. Djibril Sow - a Senegalese expatriate who has lived in Niamey for years - says he will seek out his fellow citizens in bus stations.
"If they know that there is an 90 percent chance of dying, or getting held up, or coming back with nothing, then I think people will change their mind."
($1 = 582.5600 CFA francs)
($1 = 0.8764 euros)
Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki; Editing by Crispian Balmer