Migrants crossing the Niger desert are at risk of exploitation, violence and death, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Niger's Agadez region since August 2018.
The risk of abuse, exploitation, violence and death in the desert is shared by all migrants along a route that crosses Niger. This was stressed by MSF project coordinator Aiva Noelsaint, who has been at the head of the NGO's medical and humanitarian assistance since August 2018.
''Last year, MSF decided to set up a project in the region to help alleviate the suffering of people on the move and vulnerable host communities,'' she said in an interview published on the MSF website.
In addition to providing urgent medical assistance, hygiene kits and basic goods in the region, ''floods and outbreaks of diseases such as measles are a regular occurrence, so we follow the epidemiological situation and are ready to step in if needed – with vaccination campaigns and distributions of essential relief items for people affected by epidemics or natural disasters'', she added.
'Every person has different reasons and destination'
"People on the move are not a homogenous group: each person has different circumstances and different goals," she noted. "In terms of nationality, most come from Niger and other African countries such as Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea Conakry, but there are also Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Bangladeshis (mostly expelled from Algeria or having left Libya) and people from elsewhere. They all have access to our services."
The project coordinator added that ''their motives also vary: some are fleeing war, insecurity or persecution in their countries of origin or residence; some are on the move for economic reasons, including poverty and seasonal trade. Often these motivations are intertwined."
"What is common to them all is the risk they face on their journeys of abuse, exploitation, violence and death in the desert. A worrying proportion report having already gone through unspeakable ordeals before arriving in Niger,'' she stressed.
Women are especially vulnerable - whether they be migrants, refugees, asylum seekers of Niger residents - particularly if they are pregnant.
EU policies 'have increased vulnerability'
MSF noted that Niger ''has been on Africa’s migration route for centuries, and particularly the Agadez region. In recent years, travellers heading north have been joined by thousands of people moving south, either expelled from Algeria or returning from Libya."
"Far from stopping the flow of people, the recent criminalization of migration by both European and non-European governments has significantly increased the vulnerability of people on the move, whether they are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, traders or seasonal workers,'' she said.
''Imagine being dumped in the middle of nowhere with no food or water. You don’t understand the local language and have never been to Niger – or to any desert area. Imagine that before being dropped at the border you were held in a detention center with no information. Imagine that you saw your relatives, friends or travel companions die on the journey – like the person who told us that 25 of his 30 travel companions had died after the truck that was transporting them broke down and nobody could help them in time. This kind of experience can leave people scarred for life, no matter how resilient they are,'' she said.
''On top of that, people on the move may spend days at a time unable to access food, water, a toilet, a shower or medical services,'' Noelsaint said. ''Migration is not a crime and should not be punished by neglect or through the implementation of policies that exacerbate existing vulnerabilities,'' she added.