The government of Niger says it wants to ban women and children from travelling north across the country following the horrifying discovery in the Sahara desert of 92 migrants who died of thirst.
The group of mainly women and children perished after days without food or water when the vehicle carrying them broke down then drove off, leaving them stranded.
“I will be proposing in our next cabinet meeting to ban women and children from travelling to the north from Arlit,” said Bazoum Mohammed, the foreign minister.
“It is tragic that people have lost their lives due to thirst. It is even more tragic that most of them are women and children. What we hear is that most of these people are from Niger, and they go to Algeria to beg on the streets.” Rescue workers found the 92 bodies — including 33 women and 52 children— over a period of five days. They were gathered in small clusters, but some lay alone.
One survivor, a 14-year old girl named Shafa, described her ordeal to journalists from the BBC. “We were on our way to Algeria to visit family members. There were more than 100 of us in a convoy of two vehicles. Our truck broke down, and it took a whole day to fix,” she said.
“People started dying. Some 15 died on that second day without water. So we moved on with the dead bodies in the truck ... We came across some Algerian security forces, but the drivers turned around because they didn’t want to be caught carrying us, since this was illegal.”
“Once we were in Niger, the drivers removed the bodies from the truck for burial. They laid them out on the ground. Mothers first, then their children on top of them. Many women and children died. The drivers had some water in jerry cans but they kept it just for themselves.” Shafa said that the drivers eventually drove off, saying they would buy petrol and return, but they never came back.
“We waited for two days in the desert — no food no water — before we started walking. Some vehicles passed by: we tried to stop them, but no one would stop.
“I heard that only myself, a little girl and 18 men survived the journey, out of more than 100 of us.”
Details of the group’s identity are still emerging, but they are believed to be from southern Niger, a vast landlocked area that straddles the desert between north and sub-Saharan Africa, and which was ranked the second poorest country on earth this year.
The country’s large, ungoverned desert spaces have made it a major route for migrants from other poor sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life in north Africa and Europe, while many people from Niger — which has suffered repeated food crises in recent years — are believed to attempt the treacherous journey across the desert.
But the treatment of migrants at the hands of drivers and traffickers, who illegally transport them across the desert, has shocked the country as more details emerged of how the migrants were left to die.
Earlier this week The Guardian spoke to a rescue worker on the scene in northern Niger, who described “horrible” scenes of bodies of women and children found in the desert. “We found them scattered over a large area, in small groups,” said Almoustapha Alhacen. “Some were lying under trees, others exposed to the sun. Sometimes we found a mother and her children; some of the bodies were children alone.”
Niger has declared three days of mourning for the victims, who are all believed to come from southern Niger, near the border with Nigeria.
The young age of many of the group has led to claims that they were the victims of human trafficking to Algeria, in contrast to economic migrants whose main destination is Libya, from where they attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
“I have walked in towns in Niger like Diffa, Zinder and Agadez and seen the issues of organised crime and human trafficking,” said Johnson Bien-Aime from Plan Niger. “We have mentioned this to the authorities before but, of course, it’s only when problems happen that they react.
“We are not sure [the government] can have control of the situation. They may be able to stop families trying to go over the border to Algeria and Libya on their own, but this is organised crime — it is such a mixture of people involved and such a complex situation.”
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013