Niger: Migrants’ Dreams Buried in the Sand

A long preparation – then all the savings lost to the hands of smugglers. A dream that ended in the sand of the desert.

Idrissa, 26, is sitting on a bed at the migrant centre in Niamey. The heat is oppressive. He looks out the window; he can hear noises from the street. Thoughts run through his head. When he left his home on the outskirts of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire six months ago, he could never have imagined he would end up at a migrant centre in Niger with serious injuries. He had an accident on the way to achieving his dreams. But he feels lucky  after all he is alive, while some of his travel mates are dead. He barely knew their names: Djafar from Senegal, Elom from Mali, and Kodi, who was also from Ivory Coast. Their bodies were buried in the sand of the desert.

Idrissa had dreamed of going to Europe to find a job for a long time, as he heard so many of his friends and neighbours had done before him. “I worked at an auto repair-shop and one day my boss said he didn’t need my help anymore, so all of a sudden I found myself jobless”, he says. After months of planning and saving, he sold his last valuable possession: a car which he had laboriously rebuilt month after month at the auto repair shop where he worked. Then, with the blessing of his family, he got on a bus with a few belongings, and with the money he had managed to scrape together hidden in his pockets.

Along with many other young men, who shared his dream of reaching Europe to make money, he travelled more than 2,500 kilometers north across the Ivory Coast, then to the east through Burkina Faso, and finally to Agadez in central Niger. From there, Idrissa and the others were supposed to travel to the north of Libya by lorry, and once they reached the Libyan coast they would get on a boat to cross the Mediterranean headed to Italy. But one night, not far from the Libyan border, the lorry driver pressed down hard on the accelerator pedal. He was in a hurry; he had to pick more people up, the lorry was going fast… then, a sudden blow and the lorry capsized. Idrissa recalls: “I remember people jumping out of the vehicle, I could hear them shouting, then nothing… I found myself covered in blood.”

The accident left Idrissa with two broken legs and several injuries. A lorry driver who was arriving from the other side of the road transported Idrissa and some other injured boys to the reception centre run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the Nigerian capital, Niamey. “Idrissa could not even walk when he arrived”, says Douada Mahamadou, who runs the centre. It took him more than one month to recover. The IOM has also helped Idrissa to contact his family in Ivory Coast. In a few days, he will return to Abidjan along with dozens of other Ivorian migrants who have failed to make it to Europe.
Over the past six months, more than 5,600 people who attempted to migrate to Europe were brought back to their countries of origin by the government of Niamey, according to Paloma Casaseca, a programme assistant for the IOM. “The number has doubled compared to that of last year,” says Ms Casaseca. “These are mainly migrants who have failed to reach their destination, whether due to lack of resources, or health problems, or because they were expelled from the host country.”

According to IOM calculations, more than 100,000 people from West Africa are expected to cross Niger this year on their way to Europe. To date, many of them have not even managed to reach the Libyan or Tunisian coasts and take the chance to get on the boats, which are the best known feature of this complex phenomenon. But boats are just the latest in the string of difficulties migrants have to go through. They must first succeed in travelling through vast sandy expanses on board old battered trucks or other crumbling vehicles to reach the coast.

When the vehicle which transports migrants breaks down, they often die dehydrated before they can be rescued. Survivors are sometimes sent back home. Others are exploited by smugglers, falling victim to forced labour or prostitution. “Here in Niger, we do not have certain data regarding the number of people who die in the desert. However, we estimate they are likely to be as many as those who die in the Mediterranean every year,” says the IOM’s representative in Niger.

Many migrants who are currently hosted at the IOM reception centre of Niamey say they were not aware of the dangers along the route. “Many of our friends have successfully crossed the desert to go to Europe, and so why should not we have done the same?”, says Ibrahim, 27, from Senegal, who then found out that things were completely different. “Just like Idrissa,” he continues, “I left Ivory Coast with about $2000, but even before reaching the border with Libya, all my money was gone. In fact, we were asked to pay bribes amounting to between $20 and $70 at each of the dozens of checkpoints we went through. In addition we had to pay much higher fees to the smugglers”.

Agadez is the transit centre for West Africans who try to cross the Sahara. All kinds of trafficking centres on this city at present. The police often turn a blind eye, in exchange for money, when cars or trucks packed with migrants roar at top speed around the town’s outskirts, quickly loading and unloading their human cargo.

Niger has recently stepped up its efforts to combat the smuggling of migrants, by creating the National Commission to combat human trafficking. More recently, in May, Niger passed a tough anti-human smuggling law. The new legislation, which is the first of its kind in the region, calls for prison sentences of up to 30 years for smugglers of illegal immigrants. But it is already too late for Idrissa and many others: “I feel completely discouraged when I think of all the money I gave to the traffickers. Now I just want to recover from the accident. Then we’ll see what comes next.”

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