Fleeing migrants die in desert as they are forced to take dangerous routes

In a bid to tackle human smuggling, Niger’s government enacted a law in 2015, backed by EU authorities, which effectively criminalised the once popular migration route through the Agadez region. However, the unintended repercussions of this legislation have proven to be deeply troubling.

Years after its implementation, reports continue to surface of desperate individuals resorting to even riskier paths through the treacherous Sahara Desert, often resulting in their disappearance.

Esteemed researchers and human rights organisations, including the UN rapporteur on human rights, have voiced concerns that this law is compelling migrants to embark on perilous journeys while simultaneously curtailing the region’s longstanding freedom of movement.

Disturbingly, documented cases have emerged of smugglers abandoning migrants in the vast expanse of the desert, driven by fear of prosecution.

The Sahara region, stretching from northeastern Niger to western Chad and encompassing the vast Ténéré desert, presents immense challenges for search and rescue operations due to its sheer size, inhospitable conditions, and the presence of armed bandits and terrorist groups.

Julia Black, a spokesperson for the Missing Migrants project, has shed a light on the grim reality, stating that the reported deaths of 212 individuals in the Sahara last year represent merely the visible portion of a much larger problem.

Tracking fatalities in such an expansive and hostile terrain like the Sahara presents significant inherent difficulties.

She told The Guardian: “The 212 deaths we recorded in the Sahara last year are only the tip of the iceberg. Deaths during trans-Saharan migration remain largely invisible, as documenting deaths in an area as vast and inhospitable as the Sahara is inherently a huge challenge.”

Niger, one of the world’s most impoverished nations, has received substantial financial support from the European Union, totalling over €1.3billion (£1.1billion) in aid projects from 2014 to 2020, with a significant portion allocated to migration management.

During the period from 2015 to 2022, 13 out of 19 EU-funded projects in the country focused on border controls and law enforcement. Germany, for instance, dedicated more than €166million (£142million) to 14 migration-related initiatives, according to the German NGO Misereor.

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Privacy International has characterised Niger as an “externalised European border”, shedding light on the fact that funds designated for the EU Trust Fund for Africa, a €5billion (£4.3 billion) resource aimed at addressing the root causes of irregular migration, included €11.5million (£10million) specifically allocated for migration control measures, such as drones, software, and cameras.

The “true scale of migrant deaths across the desert is unknown”, said a report by Border Forensics.

The reports come as the EU’s failed migration policies were also blamed after a fishing boat crammed to the gunwales with migrants trying to reach Europe capsized and sank on Wednesday (June 14) off the coast of Greece.

On Thursday, the front page of Efimerida ton Sintakton, a Greek newspaper, boldly features the headline “SHAME” translated into multiple languages, serving as a direct critique of Europe’s flawed migration policies.

Echoing the criticism, news website In.gr, commented: “The European policy is based on distributing economic packages here and there, in order not to ‘burden’ the countries of the rich north with the hordes of uprooted people.

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“And in the European Union of solidarity, as it claims, most people cry for the dead children of the shipwrecks, but exorcise the… evil of Islamic illegal immigrants”.

Migration experts also linked the sinking with the European Union’s failure to provide safe immigration alternatives for people fleeing conflict or hardship in the Middle East and Africa.

“We are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean, and the numbers announced by the authorities are devastating,” said Gianluca Rocco, head of the Greek section of IOM, the UN migration agency.

“This situation reinforces the urgency for concrete, comprehensive action from states to save lives at sea and reduce perilous journeys by expanding safe and regular pathways to migration,” Rocco said.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the bloc has “a collective moral duty” to dismantle migrant smuggling networks.

“The best way to ensure safety of migrants is to prevent these catastrophic journeys and invest in legal pathways,” she wrote on Twitter.

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