A major international emergency is unfolding in northern Africa, and the world has yet to notice: Smugglers are abandoning hundreds of migrants as they attempt to cross the unforgiving sands and heat of the Sahara. In an effort to evade new patrols by the Nigerien military, the human traffickers are leaving their charges to die of thirst in isolation.
The European Union and the United Nations blame the smugglers for broadening “the death trap from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert.” But the dangers of the Saharan route have been exacerbated by the European Union’s own policy, which has pushed the hazards of irregular migration further into the desert and out of sight of the media and global attention.
After the European Union’s efforts to stem the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean proved more complicated to accomplish than expected and failed to stop boat arrivals, it has expanded its partnership with Niger and focused its attention on the desert routes used by smugglers. With Niger’s 2015 law against smuggling as legal pretext, the union has provided financial and logistical support to the sub-Saharan country, which has used its military and police to crack down on West African migrants crossing from northern Niger into Libya and Algeria.
Since 2016, Niger has arrested more than 100 human traffickers and confiscated more than 95 vehicles. At the same time, it has intercepted more than 2,000 migrants at the Niger-Libya border and sent them back to their home countries. The number of migrants observed by the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, crossing from Niger into Libya via established routes through the northern Niger town of Séguédine has been sharply reduced since September 2016 when the new measures came into effect.
Our cooperation has reached an unprecedented level,” wrote a European Union spokesperson, who declined to be named, via email. “In only one year, we are seeing good results.”
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But the crackdown has not stopped migrants from making the trip. Instead, it “has had the practical effect of people carrying out this quasi-legal activity further in the shadows,” said Peter Tinti, a senior research fellow with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a watchdog group.
“It’s a known fact that the routes are changing and becoming more dangerous, which exposes migrants to more risks,” said Monica Chiriac, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in Niger, also via email. Her agency estimates that up to 6,000 people a month are traveling along a more dangerous route, which cuts to the east across the border with neighboring Chad.
When smugglers believe there are police or military in the area, or if they have technical problems because of the greater hazards of the desert tracks, they have taken to kicking the migrants out of their vehicles and leaving them to fend for themselves, without water, food or shelter, aid workers report. Already this year, the local government and the United Nations agency have rescued at least 1,000 migrants who were left stranded by traffickers. But the agency counts only people it finds alive; the number of those who died of thirst in temperatures that can reach over 110 degrees is unknown, but likely exceeds the number of those rescued. Aid workers say this is the most dangerous year yet for these migrants.
“There are more being abandoned now,” said Taher Lawal, who works with the Nigerien Red Cross in the northern oasis town of Bilma, which is along the migration route. “This year there have been so many deaths.”
According to his organization, more than 40 migrants, including three babies and two other children, died in May when their vehicle broke down in the desert. The only reason the story got out was because six survivors walked for days to a village where they were rescued. The following month, at least 50 perished after they were abandoned.
In addition to migrants being abandoned, the security operation has also hampered trade and the local economy, causing a critical loss of jobs for the region.
“Our youth are being prevented from revenue-generating activities in our region, simply because Europe does not want migrants,” said Mohamed Anako, the president of the regional council in Agadez, a city in central Niger, on local radio.
The number of people found abandoned, dead or alive, in the Sahara exposes the fact that the European Union and Niger are not living up to their commitments to uphold the human rights of migrants and to protect them from abuse. To meet its obligations, Niger should ease its restrictions on vehicles passing through the towns of Dirkou, Madama and Séguédine. And as a matter of urgency, it should expand its search and rescue missions for abandoned migrants.
The European Union has already pledged 610 million euros (about $720 million) for programs that aim to reduce the migrant flow in Niger, but not enough will go to creating economic opportunities in the country. The Union should focus its efforts to stem the flow of migration on helping other sectors of Niger’s economy grow and on regulating the trade, rather than further criminalizing it. The European Union’s funding for Niger’s anti-trafficking operations would be better spent if a smaller proportion of it were earmarked for the security forces and its enforcement measures against the smugglers.
The alternative is stark. “If this situation continues, the number of deaths in the desert will be equal to that in the sea,” said Mr. Lawal of the Red Cross. Merely displacing the problem out of sight of the world’s media is no solution to North Africa’s migration crisis.
Joe Penney is a co-founder of the West African news website Sahelien.com.