It’s a long, arduous and well-worn route. Hopeful Africans travel north through Niger, Mali and Algeria, crossing the Sahara to find work and send money home to their families.
The exodus often goes nightmarishly wrong for the migrants. They must trust their lives to unscrupulous smugglers. If someone hasn’t been paid along the route, they are sometimes abandoned by their driver. If a vehicle breaks down in the desert, there is no guarantee that help will ever come.
In the latest disaster, 92 bodies were found in the desert of the West African nation of Niger, according to a humanitarian worker, after the migrants’ two trucks broke down near the Algerian border. The bodies were strewn across the desert, found where they fell in their death march to try to reach help. Most were women and children.
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The location of their drivers was not known, authorities said.
“It was horrific. Very difficult. (The bodies) were dehydrated, decomposed. Some of them had been eaten by jackals. You couldn’t recognize them. Some had died of thirst,” said Almoustapha Alhacen, the humanitarian-organization worker. “We found the bodies of small children who were huddled beside their dead mothers.”
The dead included 52 children, 33 women and seven men, he said. Some children were found alone.
Alhacen told Reuters news service that such travelers are usually young men, not women traveling with children. “It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it. It is hard to understand what these women and children were doing there,” he said. It was not clear whether the group was headed to Northern Africa or planned to travel on to Europe.
Alhacen told BBC News that, given that so many of those found were teenagers, it was possible they were on their way to low-paid jobs in Algeria.
“My guess is that the children were madrassa children, being taken to Algeria to work. That is the only explanation that I and others can find for such a large number of children having traveled together,’’ he said.
About 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara through Niger, according to John Ging, director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“They are basically economic migrants. They are in search of work. They are so impoverished that they have to make these hazardous journeys,” he told the BBC’s Newsday program.
It took weeks for authorities to learn of the deaths and for recovery teams to reach the site in the Sahara, where they found the gruesome scene. The victims were spread across a 12-mile radius, suggesting they had set off on foot but failed to head in the direction of the Algerian border just six miles away, said Alhacen, head of the nonprofit organization Aghirin’man, in Arlit, Niger, that helped bury the bodies.
The tragedy is the latest to shed light on the perils of illegal migration. At least 365 migrants drowned Oct. 3 when a boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the European mainland.
The migrants in Niger had begun their journey Sept. 26 in two trucks and were being smuggled along a well-established trafficking route to Algeria, said Col. Garba Makido, the governor of Niger’s Agadez region, south of where the bodies were found. From Algeria, many continue on in hopes of crossing from North Africa to southern Europe.
The first truck reportedly broke down north of Arlit. The second truck returned to Arlit for a spare part, leaving the travelers in the desert. It, too, broke down before reaching the town. It’s believed the migrants waited for the truck to return for about five days and then set out looking for help or a water well.
Officials were only alerted to the migrant deaths when a woman managed to stumble out of the desert into Arlit in October. In addition to the 92 people who died, 21 people survived, most of whom made their way to towns at the Algerian border. The survivors were sent back to Niger.
“This is a true tragedy,” Makido said. “The prosecutor has opened an investigation, and we plan to do everything we can to find the truck drivers.”
The land that runs across the continent just south of the vast Sahara has for decades been the province of smugglers and criminals, including the local chapter of al-Qaida. Tens of thousands of West African immigrants attempting to reach Europe each year have tapped into this perilous route, after authorities cracked down on sea routes via the Atlantic Ocean.
They travel from countries across West Africa to the Nigerien city of Agadez, where they pay smugglers as much as $3,000 for transport to Europe. Migrants are ferried across the ocean of sand in rickety trucks, braving one of Earth’s harshest landscapes for a chance at reaching Europe.
They are willing to risk death because few meet the criteria for even a tourist visa, much less have the money to travel there by plane. Once in Europe, they hope to work illegally and eke out a living with enough left over to send money back to their families in Africa.
Landlocked Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and ranks last on the 2013 Human Development Index that measures criteria such as life expectancy and income.
The country has been ravaged by drought and hunger, and the United Nations estimates that of the country’s population of more than 16 million, some 2.5 million people go hungry even during good agricultural years. An estimated 42 percent of Niger’s children are chronically malnourished, and one of every eight children dies before the age of 5.
Niger, in response to the latest deaths, says it may ban women and children from traveling north out of the country. “I will be proposing in our next Cabinet meeting to ban women and children from traveling to the north from Arlit,” Foreign Minister Bazoum Mohammed told BBC News.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.