When 26-year-old Koné Kabiné left his home in Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan six months ago, he never thought he would end up at a migrant centre in Niger with serious injuries, about to return to the very place he so badly wanted to escape.
Kabiné had long dreamed of making his way to Europe and earning his fortune, as he heard so many of his friends and neighbours had done before him.
“Once I lost my job, I couldn’t keep living without work, with nothing to do there,” he told IRIN.
After months of planning and saving, Kabiné sold his last valuable possession: a car he had painstakingly rebuilt years ago at the auto repair shop where he used to work. Then, with the blessing of his family, he climbed onto a bus with just a few belongings. Hidden in various pockets was all the cash he had managed to scrape together.
The bus took Kabiné more than 2,500 kilometres: north up the length of Cote d’Ivoire, then east through Burkina Faso and on to the migrant hub of Agadez in central Niger. From there, he hoped to continue northwards into Libya before eventually finding a boat to take him across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Like countless West African migrants before him, Kabiné never reached his final destination.
A traffic accident – something all too common in the region – resulted in the car he was travelling in rolling over multiple times somewhere shy of the Libyan border.
“I lost a lot of blood and fell into a coma,” recalled Kabiné, who also broke both his legs in the crash.
Eventually escorted back to the Nigerien capital Niamey by friends of friends who had heard about the accident, Kabiné was taken to a migrant reception centre run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“When he was brought to us, he couldn’t even walk,” said Douada Mahamadou, who manages the centre.
With the support of IOM, who helped him make contact with relatives back home, and after more than a month recovering from his injuries, Kabiné is about to return to Abidjan along with dozens of other Ivoirian migrants who also failed to reach Europe.
Not a lone case
Since the beginning of 2015, more than 5,600 people who attempted to migrate to Europe have been returned to their countries of origin from Niamey, according to Paloma Casaseca, a program assistant here for the IOM.
“This number is double that of last year,” Casaseca told IRIN. “And these are essentially the people who failed in their journey, either because of lack of resources or health issues, or as a result of expulsions by the host country.”
IOM estimates that more than 100,000 West Africans will cross Niger this year on their way to Europe.
But many don’t even reach the coasts of places like Algeria, Libya or Morocco to try their luck on the perilous boat journeys that are the best-known feature of this complex migration phenomenon.
Vast expanses of sand make for difficult access routes, particularly aboard old pickup trucks and other dilapidated vehicles. When a car breaks down, passengers often die of dehydration before they can be rescued. Those that are found are sometimes sent back home. Others are forced into hard labour or prostitution by the smugglers.
“In Niger, we have no figures to express the crisis of the Niger desert, that engulfs probably just as many fatalities each year as the Mediterranean,” Casaseca said.
At the IOM reception centre in Niamey, many migrants told IRIN they were not aware of the full danger of what they were undertaking. They had merely heard that there was a road that could take them to Europe.
“Many friends and brothers have successfully traversed the wilderness to go to Europe and so why shouldn’t we follow the same path?” asked Bouaro Idrissa, a 27-year-old from Senegal, who was also about to be sent home from Niamey.
The reality, as Kabiné found out to his cost, is quite different.
“I left Cote d’Ivoire with around $2,000 but before I even arrived in Libya, it was all gone,” he told IRIN. “At each of dozens of checkpoints we had to pay bribes of between $20 and $70, not including the more expensive smuggler fees.”
Located about a three-day drive from the Libyan border in central Niger, the town of Agadez is the most popular transit point for West Africans attempting to cross the Sahara.
Smugglers’ compounds are bountiful and police often turn a blind eye to the trucks of migrants passing through, in exchange, of course, for cash.
Niger has stepped up efforts to combat the smuggling of migrants since 2013, when 92 of its own citizens died in the Algerian desert while attempting to make it to Europe.
Measures have included the creation of the National Agency against the Trafficking of Persons, the National Commission for the Fight against Human Trafficking and most recently, in May, the adoption of an anti-human smuggling law by the National Assembly.
The new legislation is the first of its kind in the region and allows for convicted smugglers to receive up to 30 years in prison.
"(Smuggling) affects, in one way or another, almost all areas of Niger,” said Marou Amadou, Niger's justice minister, bemoaning the country’s location in the Sahel, its porous borders, the illiteracy of its population, and the temptation for poor Nigeriens to seek easy money from the migrant business.
Niger’s government is now asking for an additional $4.1 million from donors to finance a five-year action plan to bolster anti-smuggling capabilities and help victims.
For Kabiné, and many others, it is already too late.
“I am completely discouraged and feel betrayed by the deception [of the smugglers],” Kabiné told IRIN.
“For the moment, I just need to focus on recovering my health,” he said. “Then we will see what comes next.”