Migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy raised particular alarm in Europe last month after more than 800 people were believed to have drowned in the shipwreck of a single fishing boat, the worst disaster of its kind. Most of the victims were locked below decks. But at least as many migrants may be dying of hunger and thirst in the Sahara as are drowning in the Mediterranean during this year's huge surge of human trafficking from Libya to Europe, the International Organization for Migration said.
The number of people travelling through Niger's vast desert wastes to reach North Africa and Europe could more than double this year to 100,000, the global migration body's Niger office said. The migrants are often abused by traffickers who abandon them to die in the desert if they run out of money. Niger's desert town of Agadez is one of the main transit points in the Sahara for migrants leaving impoverished West African nations en route for north Africa and then Europe. “Libya is an open door,” said Giuseppe Loprete, IOM head of mission in Niger. Loprete also said there was little Niger could do to stop the flow of migrants as many came from countries in the West African bloc ECOWAS - such as Nigeria, Mali, Gambia and Senegal - which allows freedom of movement between its 15 member states. “To stop these migrant flows at the border would only generate more problems,” he said, adding that the real issue was the lack of work in their countries of origin. “We need to finance development programmes at a community level so that there is not such an incentive to try to migrate.” But socialists know only full well that is very much easier said than done under the capitalist system.
Smugglers sometimes imprison migrants and force their families to pay for their release, Loprete said. Migrants were obliged to pay not only the smugglers but also bribes to security officials along the route. “The moment they have no more money, they are left behind,” Loprete said. “People are dying in the desert as well as at sea. In fact, I would be surprised if it was not more than in the Mediterranean.”
Niger promised a crackdown after 92 migrants died of hunger and thirst in the desert in October 2013 after being abandoned by traffickers taking them to Algeria. A Reuters investigation last year found that smuggling continued with the tacit blessing of local officials. Loprete said a recent IOM mission to the northern town of Dirkou had rescued 85 migrants who said they were abandoned in the desert by smugglers after they ran out of money. They had sheltered for two days under bushes and in the sand hoping for someone to save them.
“In the desert, there are a lot of problems,” said Adama Diaw, 30, a Senegalese woman who migrated to Algeria in 2008 with her husband hoping to reach Europe but is returning home without him. “They lock people in cages, three or four people for days, until you don't know if they are dead. If they die, they just burn the bodies,” she said.