Migrant trek north is deadly

2015-08-03 17:42
Migrants sit on the back of bakkies, holding wooden sticks tied to the vehicle to avoid falling from it, as they leave the outskirts of Agadez for Libya. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

Migrants sit on the back of bakkies, holding wooden sticks tied to the vehicle to avoid falling from it, as they leave the outskirts of Agadez for Libya. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

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Agadez - Bashir walks through the dusty streets of Agadez, an important commercial hub in northern Niger. Bashir is a trader, but he doesn't deal in goods. He traffics migrants across the Sahara.

Bashir, who spoke to dpa on condition of anonymity, describes himself as a middleman, who arranges transportation to Libya or Algeria from where migrants continue their arduous and dangerous journey across the ocean, mostly to Italy or Spain.

In Agadez, Niger's gateway to the Sahara desert, thousands of migrants arrive each year from poor nations in West Africa, including Gambia, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Mauritania, where half or more of the population live on less than $1.25 per day.

Authorities in Niger estimate that between 40 000 and 80 000 migrants passed through the country in 2014 and expect up to 120 000 people to migrate through Niger this year.

From Agadez, migrants board trucks that take them on a three- to four-day journey across the Sahara. To get a seat, middlemen like Bashir negotiate the price with the drivers.

It's a well-oiled system feeding off the desperation of the poor. No migrant will be able to leave Agadez without having paid his dues to a middleman or trafficker.

It costs between $175 and $260 to get on a pick-up truck to Libya, says Bashir. The price includes his own cut of 20%.

Cheaper option

There is also a slightly cheaper option: travelling on the roof of a heavy-duty lorry. But that is a lot riskier because the journey takes much longer and keeps people exposed to the hot, unrelenting sun.

The big trucks are usually old and often break down, which Bashir says, is like a death sentence.

"There is no water. People die of thirst," the trafficker explains.

"There are so many who die in the wilderness," confirms Kollo Abdul Rashid, who leads advocacy group Renewal and Innovation (CRI), which assists migrants to obtain travel documents in Agadez.

"We regularly find dead bodies in the desert without documents. Without being able to identify them, we cannot even inform their families of their deaths," Rashid adds.

But many migrants don't even get that far. As soon as they run out of money, they are stuck in transit hubs like Agadez for months, sometimes years.

They live under perilous conditions until they earn enough money to continue the journey. Some live in rows of shabby houses rented out by traffickers, where dozens of migrants have to share one room.

Others stay in transit centres managed by international aid organizations. 

Life worth a few dollars

"They leave without knowing how long it will take them or what kind of difficulties they might encounter," says International Organization for Migration (IOM) communications manager Paloma Cassasseca in Agadez.

By the time they arrive in Agadez, most have woken up to the harsh reality that traffickers and middlemen will literally sell their lives for a few dollars.

At least every third migrant who passes through Agadez has experienced physical abuse, threats, theft of identity papers, withholding wages or restriction of movement, according to Cassasseca.

Merkeba Drame, who is in his 30s, has lived for more than three months in a "ghetto" in the town's Misrata neighbourhood - named after the city on Libya's coast from where boats leave for Europe.

Drame says he paid $350 to trek from his home in Senegal across Mali and Burkina Faso to Niger. When he arrived in Agadez, he had spent all his money, only to realize he needs about three times that much to get to Europe.

Since Drame heard about the hundreds of migrants who drowned off the coast of Libya, he found himself between a rock and hard place: In Agadez, he is in constant danger of being arrested by police, while the onward journey could mean death.

"I am waiting for some positive news before I continue," says Drame. What those could entail, he does not know.

Read more on:    iom  |  niger  |  migrants

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