Assamaka (Niger): From an isolated frontier post deep in the sands of the Sahara, the expelled migrants can be seen coming over the horizon by the hundreds.
They look like specks in the distance, trudging miserably across some of the world's most unforgiving terrain in the blistering sun. They are the ones who made it out alive.
In the Sahara desert, Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 people in the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children, stranding them without food or water and forcing them to walk, sometimes at gunpoint, under temperatures of up to 48 degrees Celsius.
In Niger, where the majority head, the lucky ones limp across a desolate 15-kilometre no-man's-land to Assamaka, less a town than a collection of unsteady buildings sinking into drifts of sand. Untold numbers perish along the way; nearly all the more than two dozen survivors interviewed by The Associated Press told of people in their groups who simply could not go on and vanished into the Sahara.
"Women were lying dead. Other people got missing in the desert because they didn't know the way," said Janet Kamara, who was pregnant at the time. Her body still aches from the dead baby she gave birth to during the trek and left behind in the Sahara, buried in a shallow grave in the molten sand. Algeria's mass expulsions have picked up since October 2017, as the European Union (EU) renewed pressure on North African countries to head off migrants going north to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or the barrier fences with Spain. These migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa — Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and more — are part of the mass migration toward Europe, some fleeing violence, others just hoping to make a living.
An EU spokesperson said the they were aware of what Algeria was doing, but that "sovereign countries" can expel migrants as long as they comply with international law. Algeria provides no figures for the expulsions. But the number of people crossing on foot to Niger has been increasing steadily since the International Organisation for Migration started counting in May 2017, when 135 people were dropped at the crossing, to as high as 2,888 in April 2018. In all, according to the IOM, a total of 11,276 men, women and children survived the march.
The migrants who AP talked to described being rounded up hundreds at a time, crammed into open trucks headed southward for six to eight hours to what is known as Point Zero, then dropped in the desert and pointed in the direction of Niger. They are told to walk, sometimes at gunpoint. The migrants' accounts are confirmed by multiple videos collected by the AP over months, which show hundreds of people stumbling away from lines of trucks and buses, spreading wider and wider through the desert.
Algerian authorities refused to comment on the allegations raised by the AP. Algeria has denied criticism from the IOM and other organizations that it is committing human rights abuses by abandoning migrants in the desert, calling the allegations a "malicious campaign" intended to inflame neighbouring countries.
Along with the migrants who make their way from Algeria to Niger on foot, thousands more Nigerien migrants are expelled directly home in convoys of trucks and buses. That's because of a 2015 agreement between Niger and Algeria to deal with Nigeriens living illegally in their neighbour to the north. Even then, there are reports of deaths, including one mother whose body was found inside the jammed bus at the end of the 450-kilometre journey from the border.
The number of migrants sent home in convoys — nearly all of them Nigerien — has also shot up, to at least 14,446 since August 2017, compared with 9,290 for all of 2016. The number of migrants going to Algeria is increasing as an unintended side effect of Europe's successful blocking of the Libyan crossing, said Camille Le Coz, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels.
But people die going both ways; the Sahara is a swift killer that leaves little evidence behind. The arid heat shrivels bodies, and blowing sand envelops the remains. The IOM has estimated that for every migrant known to have died crossing the Mediterranean, as many as two are lost in the desert. The first stop south is Assamaka, the only official border post in the 950-kilometre border Algeria shares with Niger. Even in Assamaka, there are just two water wells — one that pumps only at night and the other, dating to French colonial times, that gives rusty water.
In Assamaka, the migrants settle into a depression in the dunes behind the border post until the IOM can get enough buses to fetch them. The IOM offers them a choice: Register with IOM to return eventually to their home countries or fend for themselves at the border.
Some decide to take their chances on another trip north, moving to The Dune, an otherworldly open-air market a few kilometers away, where macaroni and gasoline from Algeria are sold out of the back of pickups and donkey carts. From there, they will try again to return to Algeria, in hopes of regaining the lives and jobs they left behind. Trucks are leaving all the time, and they take their fare in Algerian dinars. The rest will leave by bus for the town of Arlit, about 6 hours to the south through soft sand. Ultimately, they will return to their home countries on IOM-sponsored flights.
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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 15:04:41 IST