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Hidden toll of refugee lives

18 March 20160 comments

Last year almost 4000 migrants drowned crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

But countless more perished before they even got to the North African coast. No one is counting the lives claimed by the Sahara.

Humanitarian agencies say the hidden toll of refugees make it easier for politicians to ignore them and not act

Humanitarian agencies say the hidden toll of refugees make it easier for politicians to ignore them and not act

Humanitarian agencies say this makes it easier for politicians to ignore them.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has no data on how many people die in the desert, according to its North Africa unit.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reconnects families, but does not collect information about their dead.

A handful of unofficial databases maintained by volunteers, academics and non-governmental organizations have tried to keep count, but they depend largely on sporadic media reports.

One of them is based at Oxford University’s International Migration Institute, which has field workers in the Sahara.

Institute fellow Julien Brachet says the issue is getting worse.

“It’s a problem, because there may be as many people dying in the desert as there are in the Mediterranean,” he said.

“We can’t prove it, so we can’t say it, so nobody is going to intervene,” Mr Brachet said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 120,000 migrants passed through the city of Agadez on their way to North Africa or Europe in 2015, more than twice as many as the previous year.

In the past, people would leave the city openly. Now, weekly military convoys offered some protection.

Since a tragedy in 2013, when 92 desert travellers died of thirst, the Niger government has moved to shut down the routes, and the traffic has become more secretive and hidden.

The Sahara in northern Niger and neighboring Mali is home to drugs and arms traffickers, people-smugglers, kidnappers and armed Islamist militant groups, some of them linked to al Qaeda.

The European Union has put Niger and other countries under pressure to crack down on smuggling.

In 2014, the EU opened a mission in Niger to train the security forces to “help prevent irregular migration.” Last year, Niger passed a law banning people-smuggling that could see smugglers jailed for up to 30 years.

But Mr Brachet says that may have been counter-productive because it pushed much of the trade underground.

“It used to be, not impossible, but very difficult for somebody to abandon migrants in the middle of the desert,” he said.

“Now, as it’s clandestine, nobody knows if you really reach the point where you were supposed to drop your passengers off or not, or if you left them in the desert,” Mr Brachet said.

The EU says it has made a priority of tackling people-smugglers and others who put the lives of vulnerable migrants at risk: the organisation does not control borders or patrol in the desert, but supports the authorities with training and advice.

The IOM, which has staff in northern Niger, is trying to gather better information about how many people move through the region, and what happens to them. It estimates that some 2,300 people pass through Agadez each week. But it recorded only 37 deaths in the Sahara in 2015.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist