The perilous migration across the desert of Niger: Africa’s hidden story

Young migrants crossing the desert zone in northeastern Niger on their way to Europe transit through the city of Agadez, where they wait to continue on their journey. And find hope or death.
Young migrants crossing the desert zone in northeastern Niger on their way to Europe transit through the city of Agadez, where they wait to continue on their journey. And find hope or death.

Every day, thousands of people undertake a perilous journey to seek refuge and protection in a country other than their own. Pushed by hunger, forced to flee violence or persecution, they leave everything behind and follow illegal and unsafe routes in search of safety. Sometimes however the journey itself costs them their lives.

More than 7,000 people trying to reach Italy have died in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making the Italian route to Europe one of the deadliest in the world. Much less is known however about those who have died trying to reach the sea, crossing the endless desert of Ténéré, in south central Sahara.

Agadez, the legendary gateway to the desert, has become a transit city for many migrants trying to reach Libya to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.Agadez, the legendary gateway to the desert, has become a transit city for many migrants trying to reach Libya to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

Estimates vary, but it is thought that between 80,000 and 150,000 people crossed the harsh and arid desert zone in northeastern Niger on their way to Europe in 2015. Most of them were young, sometimes very young, men, coming from Cameroon, Senegal, Gambia or Guinea. The majority transited through Agadez, the last city in the north before starting their journey across the desert to reach the Libyan cost.

Once called the "Pearl of the desert", Agadez is no longer frequented by tourists, but instead hosts hundreds of migrants crowded into small houses on the outskirts of the city. Here they wait for days, even weeks, to catch the next pick-up heading to the Libyan border to continue on their journey. Or return home when they run out of money.

Yaya has been in Agadez for 2 months. He now waits for his family to send him money to pay for a truck to take him the 1,000 kilometers to the Libyan border. Yaya has been in Agadez for 2 months. He now waits for his family to send him money to pay for a truck to take him the 1,000 kilometers to the Libyan border.

Yaya lives in a 3 by 2 meter room. He is 24, from Casamance (Senegal). He’s been in Agadez for 2 months now. The armed conflict between the rebels seeking independence and the army has caused his family to lose their farming lands and with them the means to make a living. He is hoping to reach Italy and get a job that will allow him to support his family.

Yaya has big, bright eyes, as if his spirit is fighting to keep him from losing hope while his body is being consumed by hunger and the frustration of waiting. "There is no more work in Casamance. My family and I raised 200,000 francs by selling cattle and working as laborers in the countryside. We spent a year preparing for this trip."

"I had an idea about the dangers, I saw news on television about the deaths in the Mediterranean and the instability and lack of work in Libya. But there are many people who have arrived, and this gave me hope."

A young man sleeps in one of the rooms in the ghetto. There are no beds, just a few mats, so many people have to sleep directly on the floor.A young man sleeps in one of the rooms in the ghetto. There are no beds, just a few mats, so many people have to sleep directly on the floor.

Staring at the wall and shrugging his shoulders, he sighs and says, "I am the oldest son and my responsibility is to support my family. I am the first migrant in my entire family, and all of their hopes are placed in me." A familiar mantra among the young people with whom he is sharing a house.

Many also denounce the violence and bribes in transit countries, particularly in Burkina Faso. "There, the police stop the buses, identify the migrants, and make them get off. They take your phone and anything of value, plus they make you pay between 10 and 15 francs, and if you don't have it you go to prison.", says Yaya.

Once they have arrived in Agadez, young migrants must remain hidden, locked in houses without bathrooms or access to drinking water. Once they have arrived in Agadez, young migrants must remain hidden, locked in houses without bathrooms or access to drinking water.

Yaya shares a house with 45 young men in the overcrowded ghetto in Agadez. The head of the ghetto brings them a bag of rice every other day and water to drink. "If we want to wash we have to pay extra. Six people share a plate to eat. There is just one toilet. Many of us sleep outside because there is no way to sleep in the rooms with the heat and lack of air",  explains Yaya.

Each Monday evening the trucks for Libya depart, driving at full-speed without lights as they leave the city and enter the desert. The smugglers provide no food or water to the migrants, who must be careful not to feel asleep or they will fall from the overcrowded trucks and die.

Yaya doesn't have any money left. "The last I had I spent on a water can (1,000 CF) for crossing the desert. It's a 2-day ride on the back of a truck and they don't stop for any reason. Staying here costs me 500 CF per day. Now I'm waiting for my family to be able to send me money so I can continue to Libya. There I will have to work to get the money I will need to take a boat to Italy."

Yaya’s water can, a recycled plastic container originally used for cooking palm oil, covered with sackcloth to maintain the water temperature. Yaya’s water can, a recycled plastic container originally used for cooking palm oil, covered with sackcloth to maintain the water temperature. These containers are a symbol of the migrants crossing the desert on their way to Libya.

"I imagine how worried my mother must be. Sometimes I look at the ring she gave me and I feel very sad. I imagine how she would feel knowing about the conditions I am living in now. I cannot leave this place freely. I can't look for work in the city because there isn't any, and because I'm hiding. If the police catch me, I don't know what they'll do... Maybe they'll send me back. Here we are trapped."

"Sometimes I'm afraid of what could happen, but it all depends on the perspective with which you view things. There is a whole future ahead. I know it will be difficult, but I have the strength to get through it. There is no other choice. I know that the trip is dangerous: the desert, and then the sea, but I know how to swim".

You can help

There is a dearth of information about how many people have died on the treacherous route across the Sahara desert, but testimonies collected by Oxfam chronicle the horrors suffered along the way.

With world leaders meeting this September at the UN, now is the time to stand in solidarity with people forced to flee and tell them that they must commit to do more for refugees and migrants. If you agree that we all deserve to live in safety, then please Stand As One and sign our petition today.

Photos: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam