WEST AFRICA: Migrants risk all to cross desert

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sub-Saharan migrants continue attempting dangerous and illegal crossings into Libya and Algeria.

They pick their way through Niger’s Air mountains, circumventing a mountain rebellion, increased mountain banditry, and North African border crackdowns, according to migrants and smugglers in Niger’s mountain gateway town of Agadez.

Freddy Kasseri, a 22-year-old Ghanaian migrant, told IRIN he regretted leaving Ghana in search of work when his truck was stopped on 12 August 2008, 500km from Agadez, en route to Libya. An armed truck intercepted his group: “They made us undress and took everything of value.” Kasseri said the bandits took five Ghanaian women and five Nigerian women into the desert.

Kasseri, interviewed by IRIN in Agadez, said the bandits had stolen over US$300 and taken all his clothes: “I prepared well before leaving [Ghana], but I have lost everything en route and am not sure how I will eat tonight.”

Despite a sharp drop in tourism since the outbreak of a mountain rebellion in February 2007, thousands of West Africans still pass through the former tourist hub of Agadez to reach North Africa - and for some, Europe - according to a May 2007 UN Children’s Fund study.

People smugglers

Upon arrival in Agadez, the job-seeking migrants are greeted by people smugglers.

Agadez resident Raliou Hamed said the smuggler network has grown in recent years: “Since the 1990s, there has been an endless flow of migrants travelling through Agadez to Libya and Algeria to find work, earn some money, and continue onward [to Europe]. Most arrive in Agadez broke, and are forced to do whatever they can to survive to pay these agents.”

He described a well-organised smuggling operation that “rivalled any travel agency, except without the signs”.

The 2007 UN funded-Niger government study estimated at least 10 unauthorised transportation businesses - with a dozen offices and more than 50 employees - were recruiting migrant passengers.

Known locally as Tchagga, these sub-Saharan smugglers help the West African migrants find transportation, lodgings, and meals, bribing officials as necessary.

The study estimated the cost of the trip could run to US$250 per person after all the middlemen’s fees are taken into account.

The average monthly salary in much of sub-Saharan Africa is US$45, according to a 2008 UN estimate.

Rebellion alters routes

Migrants told IRIN they gathered in small groups, lodged in huts 30km from Agadez, and departed at night for Libya and Algeria in tarpaulin-covered Toyota 4x4’s.

Drivers told IRIN the main route to Libya involved a 1600km trip which took the fugitives to Sebha, Libya, and cost US$150 per person.

Mountain rebel violence, which surged in February 2007, has changed the drivers’ normal route into Algeria.

Trucks leaving from Arlit in Niger for Tamarrrasset in Algeria - which cost an additional US$10 per person, and cover 875km - try to avoid police posts and military convoys on the lookout for rebels.

On 8 October, a man requesting anonymity told IRIN his brother, Noura Sountal, died on 19 September when his truck filled with migrants hit a mine 40km from the northern Niger military post of Madama, 1000km from Agadez. He said four of the migrants on board also died.

A 20-year-old migrant from Kumasi, Ghana, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN the risk of violence and security crackdowns would not deter him: “You hear about the risks, but it is hard to know what it is really like out there. You know, everybody has their luck. We just pray to cross the desert.”

A 2008 illegal migration study by the research and advocacy non-governmental organisation Open Society Institute for West Africa (OSIWA) said “draconian” security crackdowns on illegal migrants in North Africa had led to the forced, and at times violent, expulsion of migrants.


A man who gave IRIN his name as Abdoulaye said that on one of his several attempts to cross the desert to Algeria, the driver left his group in the Algerian village of Tchmilkom, 70km from the Niger border: “We did not have enough petrol. The driver collected more than US$200 from us, and said he was going to buy petrol and… that it was too dangerous for us to accompany him because of the security checkpoints.”

Abdoulaye said his group walked as far as they could, and then took different commercial convoys back to Arlit in Niger.

However, a migrant smuggler who preferred anonymity dismissed fraud allegations against drivers: “That is totally untrue. Without migrants, we have no business. The migrants’ countrymen cheat them and blame us, the drivers.”
Starting in 2005, security forces in Morocco and Algeria have reported finding the dehydrated corpses of would-be immigrants in the desert.

Second try

The International Office for Migration (IOM) estimated in 2008 that up to 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans were entering North Africa annually, with up to 38 percent continuing on to Europe.

“Migrants failing, or not venturing, to enter Europe often prefer to settle in North Africa as a “second-best” option, rather than return to their substantially poorer or unsafe countries of origin,” IOM researcher Hein de Haas wrote.

Upon his return to Agadez after a failed attempt to enter Libya, Ghanaian migrant Kasseri told IRIN he was saving money for another attempt: “Sometimes I help a bricklayer in my neighbourhood and earn a little over US$1 a day. My master’s degree in anthropology does me very little good.”