31 Oct 2013

Graveyard of migrants: Sahara claims latest victims

The 92 migrants found dead in Niger were just a handful of people among thousands each year who brave dehydration and starvation to escape across the Sahara desert.

Niger, the world’s most impoverished country according to the UN, is a common starting point for migrants wishing to escape north to Algeria, Libya and beyond.

From the start of 2013 till the end September, about 15,000 migrants from Niger, and 1,000 from other countries, had tried to escape north but turned back or were returned by their destination countries, according to the International Organisation for Migration. These figures include migrants who attempted the journey more than once.

This marks a big increase since last year, when 11,000 migrants from Niger and 2,600 from elsewhere were returned.

In the latest incident, only 20 people survived by walking miles across the scorching desert . The bodies of mostly women and children were strewn across a wide area within 12 miles of Niger’s border with neighbouring Algeria, a fate sadly common among the thousands who attempt the journey.

Destination Europe

The Sahara desert stretches across northern Africa, forming a formidable barrier to anyone trying to head north. African migrants must choose one of several treacherous routes to their destination, braving unscrupulous smugglers, suspicious locals and sometimes brutal police forces.

In this case the destination of the migrants is still unclear, but many head for Algeria or Libya, according to Anna Dibartolmeo, a researcher at the Migration Policy Centre.

“Some of them try to use such countries as transit countries, but a majority supposedly stay in Morocco, Algeria and Libya,” she said.

The main migrant routes are from sub-Saharan Africa to northern Africa and onto Europe to countries like Italy, “but most don’t want to stay, they want to go to northern Europe, for example France,” Dibartolmeo added.

They also pass through the eastern Mediterrannean, through the Aegean sea to Greece but the route through Spain into Europe is less used now after a clamp-down.

The deadly Sahara

This time the group had set off in two trucks from Arlit in northern Niger towards Algeria in mid-October, but after one of the trucks broke down the second turned back for help and became stranded, leading some passengers to head back on foot.

After days of searching, Niger authorities found seven men, 33 women and 52 children. The high number of women and children was unusual because migrants are usually men trying to find work.

Laura Lungarotti, a migrant specialist for the IOM, said the recent increase in people being turned back from Libya may result from the country’s “unruly” and poorly co-ordinated migrant policy.

Migrants “manage to cross the border [into Libya] but then they get intercepted by Libyan authorities, put into trucks and taken back to the border,” she said.

Niger’s latest victims of the dangerous Sahara trek were not the first, and will sadly not be the last.