ANALYSIS | West African migrants: Despair at home, death in the Sahara

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On daily basis, Europe-bound West African economic migrants continue to die in the searing heat of the Sahara Desert or get drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, as they embark on the perilous sea crossing between the Libyan coast and the shores of the European continent 

 

A truck carrying goods and migrants drives through the Tenere desert region of the south-central Sahara in Niger on June 3. (Jerome Delay/AP)

 

Estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) show more numbers of economic migrants die in the Sahara Desert – of exhaustion, dehydration, accidents and diseases – compared to those dying when their rafts get capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, as they embark on what is supposed to be the last leg of their tortuous journey to Europe, overnight.

For years, pundits have continued to wonder why these African migrants, mostly in their prime age, continue to risk everything to get to Europe. Varied factors, chief among them a sense of desperation and disillusion with life at home, have been identified to be responsible for migrants’ unquenchable desire to make it to Europe, which they see as a sort of Eldorado. Therefore, such irregular migrants are of the belief that their destiny is inextricably tied to Europe: until they set their foot on the continent, their future would remain as bleak and hopeless as their present circumstances.

 

What are the push factors?

Majority of these economic migrants who also include women, children and older people are driven out of their native communities – in Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, amongst other West African nations – by abject poverty, famine and conflicts such as the Boko Haram insurrection in the Lake Chad region and separatist armed insurgencies around the territories of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. This has led to the collapse of tourism in West Africa’s Sahel regions such as Agadez; the ancient trading post now turned major transit hub on the Europe-bound migration route of West African immigrants.

“I am trying to finish my journey. From the moment I left Ivory Coast, I have been between life and death. Do you understand? Can you even begin to imagine that a man sits here among pieces of wood to travel more than 2,500 kilometers? But such is life and we pray to God that we arrive safe and sound to our final destination,” Toure Djibril, an Ivorian migrant told africanews.com

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Therefore, despite being fully aware of the obvious risks and dangers surrounding the trip to Europe via the Sahara and Mediterranean, thousands of youths from across West Africa continue to embark on this journey of life-and-death, many of them having sold off all of their material possessions, received financial contributions from their families and friends and even borrowed to finance their trip to the dreamland!

 

 The perilous Sahara Desert

According to IOM, for every Europe-bound economic migrant that dies in the Mediterranean, 2 others have already died in the Sahara. Although the international media is awash with regular reports of migrants’ rafts sinking in the Mediterranean, killing and burying thousands of migrants in the process, there is little media reportage on the deaths of migrants in the Sahara. Most of who die of a wide range of causes including diseases, starvation, dehydration, gun-running, and sexual abuse, in the hands of traffickers, bandits and other criminal gangs.

“When you leave Agadez and you enter into Libya, the journey changes a lot. Not just because you have to cross the Sahara desert, which is just the first step, but also because the vulnerability increases and what was before mainly a smuggling network progressively shifts into a trafficking network. So, the exploitative and the abuse part increases. You have to survive in Libya, which is not a given. You have to survive the tension centre in Libya, the security situation in Libya, which is not clearly easy, not even for the Libyans themselves. And then, you have to cross the Mediterranean, so it’s a very dangerous journey,” Michele Bambassei, a migrant assistance specialist at IOM told africanews.com

Crossing the Sahara alive does not guarantee a safe passage into Europe yet; immigrants or  trafficked persons may have to endure being abducted and sold to slavery in war-torn Libya’s open slave market. However, although most migrants are conscious of the grave risks associated with the overnight crossing of the Mediterranean to arrive in mainland Europe, most are oblivious of the dangers that await them in Libya before they make it to the Libyan coast.

 

A hundreds of millions of dollars trafficking industry

Agadez is an ancient West African trading hub dating back to the days of the Trans-Saharan trade, from where camel caravans have departed to other parts of Africa, carrying gold and salt; it is now a heaven for trade in arms, drugs and most importantly, humans. Since the death of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the hitherto heavily restricted route to Europe through Niger, Algeria and Libya became wide opened to migrants and traffickers in drugs, arms and humans while Agadez became West Africa’s capital of trafficking and smuggling in persons.

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An erstwhile tourism hub nicknamed “gateway to the desert,” Agadez became home to the smuggling and trafficking industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Before the rise of militant groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) in the region, the town which had been included in UNESCO World Heritage List, was an important tourism destination with many economic activities around the tourism industry in the metropolis.

As at around 2015, according to the UK Guardian, a smuggler makes as much as £4,985, per trip to Libya from Agadez. That is to say, a smuggler or trafficker in Agadez could make as much as £250,000 in a year, by transporting migrants to Libya. Hence, the industry became a major provider of employment among many Agadez residents who were hitherto engaged in various economic activities around the tourism industry; they were now working as traffickers and smugglers earning thousands of dollars a week.

 

A decline in migrants’ flow

At the peak of the trafficking and smuggling enterprise in 2016, between 300,000 and 400, 000 migrants were estimated to have passed through Agadez, with estimated 6,000 people directly engaged in Agadez’s migration service industry. Everything began to change in 2016 with the strict enforcement of Law 2015-36;  the law which made it illegal to transport or shelter migrants was enacted in 2015. Therefore, migrants’ accommodations in Agadez also known as ‘ghettos’ were closed down while smugglers were jailed, their vehicles confiscated.

The law significantly brought down the numbers of migrants passing through Agadez. According to EUCAP Sahel Niger, arrivals in Italy had fallen by 85 percent between 2016 and 2019. The number of migrants stopping over in Agadez had also fallen from 350 a day in 2016 to fewer than 100 in 2018. Law 2015-36 was adopted around the same time as the European Agenda on Migration and the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa (EUTF for Africa).

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However, critics of Law 2015-36 and the EUTF for Africa argue they “restrict freedom of movement” and undermine “development effort” in Niger.  “In our country, 11 projects are currently ongoing, with a total value of € 229 million. Nearly all of them relate to migration and some, like the establishment of a ‘joint investigative team’ and a ‘rapid reaction force’, are directly aimed at preventing the movement of potential migrants. These measures cause massive harm to the local population,” wrote the duo of Ibrahim Manzo Diallo and Katja Dombrowski in a blog article on Development and Cooperation (D+C)

Although the flow of migrants through Agadez has declined considerably, the flow hasn’t stopped entirely yet, reports have shown. Instead, the migrants, their smugglers and traffickers are now discreet about it. However, this has only made it even more risky since the traditional migrants routes in the Sahara are now heavily guarded by the Nigerien security forces. So, they now resort to off-the-map and difficult to navigate routes within the desert, which are not only longer but also associated with more grievous risks to do with  dehydration, hunger, diseases and death!

 

Stemming the migrant exodus

Until push factors are addressed at home communities of returnees and potential migrants, through a combination of community reorientation strategies and youth-focused economic development projects, young West Africans will continue to embark on the perilous crossing of the Sahara Desert and the equally terrifying crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, in search of a perceived however elusive greener pasture in Europe.

Therefore, governments across the West African region, which is the major source of Europe-bound economic migrants, must continue to work with the European governments to develop various economic  assistance programmes targeting youths across the region. Deliberate strategies must be evolved targeting most especially vulnerable communities with highest numbers of returnees, victims and survivors of migration and human trafficking such as Edo state in Nigeria.

It is only through a combination of economic development interventions addressing the lack of employment opportunities as well as a holistic societal reorientation programmes, for especially youths from the region that the continues flow of economic migrants into the Sahara Desert would be stemmed. Moreover, by leveraging social and traditional media to promote the gripping true-life stories of ex-migrants and victims of human trafficking, more and more youths could be dissuaded from embarking on a voyage that is unmistakably a matter of life-and-death!

 

 

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