Many African migrants from Sub-Sahara travel through the Sahara desert and North Africa on the way to Europe. They often face the danger of being abandoned in the hot desert by human smugglers. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the desert is the much bigger cemetery than the Mediterranean Sea.
Much attention is paid to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the number of people who die in the attempt. But there is another tragedy of migration that begins much earlier. Migrants traversing the Sahara get stranded in the desert because they are abandoned by smugglers and left in the excruciating heat, with little food or water. According to the IOM, smugglers use increasingly dangerous and often times deadly routes.
Stranded in the deserts of Niger and Libya
The overthrow of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 reopened smuggling routes between Niger and Libya, allowing migrants to come through in hopes of reaching Europe. Previously, migrants would take off toward Libya from the Nigerien city of Agadez but the EU has financed a crackdown in 2016 on smugglers operating from the city.
The number of smuggling operations based out of Agadez has dropped dramatically. “Smugglers are taking more risks to avoid major hubs, checkpoints and security controls,” Alberto Preato, a program director at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niger told Reuters. “But cars break down, drivers get lost, and migrants get abandoned… the conditions are dire.” According to him, many migrants say that the “desert is a bigger cemetery than the Mediterranean Sea.”
From Niger, the migrants head for the Fezzan region of Libya, where smuggling is rampant and ethnic and tribal factions fight for power, as reported by the International Crisis Group. Migrants who survive the trek across Niger have to then fight the risk of being killed in Libya - whether it be by the smugglers, the tribal factions or the jihadists. Many of the migrants crossing through into Libya enter the country through the city of Sebha.
Assistance to Niger
The IOM runs search and rescue operations to save migrants abandoned in the desert. According to the IOM, more than 1000 migrants have been saved since April of this year. Many of the migrants are transferred to an IOM transit center in Agadez, where they can receive assistance to return to their countries of origin.
The IOM introduced a program in April 2017 financed by the Dutch government called “Migrant Rescue and Assistance in Agadez Region” (MIRAA). The year long program hopes to protect the migrants in hard to reach areas. “We are enhancing our capacity to assist vulnerable migrants stranded in Northern Agadez, towards the Niger- Libya border,” Giuseppe Loprete IOM Niger Chief of Mission said.
Over the past year, Niger and the European Union have been working to together to tighten cooperation on the migrant crisis in Niger. The EU has been assisting Niger in returning migrants voluntarily to their home countries. The EU also hopes to cooperate more closely with Niger on closing down new migratory routes.