1. Home
  2. Africa

Destination Europe: Desperation

Nearly dying in the Sahara doesn’t deter some migrants from trying again and again to reach Europe

Eric Reidy/IRIN
Agadez' western outskirts.

As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

The first time Ousmane Bah was abandoned in the desert, it was June 2017. Five of the people he was with died. He was 21 years old and had left his home in Guinea a couple of months earlier, after his father was killed in a flare-up of political violence. Ousmane was afraid the killers would come for him next, so he decided to try to escape to Europe, where, he said, “they respect the law and human rights”.

Guinea is part of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which has a visa-free travel arrangement for citizens of its 15 member countries. As Ousmane crossed borders on commercial buses, no one asked to see his passport or questioned him about where he was going. It was easy progress, that is until he reached the city of Agadez in Niger.

Agadez has long been a hub for regional migration. Following the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it became the gateway for people travelling from West Africa to Europe via Libya. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants began to arrive on European shores, the EU began searching for ways to stem the flow. On the route from West Africa, that effort focused on Agadez. Six months before Ousmane arrived in the city, the government of Niger had begun enforcing a law that criminalised the irregular movement of people to Libya.

The EU-backed crackdown on irregular migration has not so much stopped the movement of people from Niger to Libya as forced it underground. A recent report by the research initiative REACH found that, since the beginning of 2017, there has been a diversification of the routes that people take to arrive in Libya, in large part due to the restrictions introduced in Niger. “Key informants” cited in the study – who included law enforcement officials, local leaders, activists, smugglers, and humanitarian aid workers – reported that “they had not witnessed a decrease in arrivals of refugees and migrants from the southern borders.”

The view of those on the ground in Agadez is that tighter security has made the journey more difficult and dangerous. Migrants end up stuck in stark living conditions for months while they search for a way forward; drivers take riskier routes through the desert; and the number of people abandoned during the trip has increased. Facing such obstacles, some people give up and go home. But others still risk everything – even death – to get one step closer to Europe.

Because the migration business has been pushed underground, there’s no way to tell how many migrants are stuck in Agadez while searching for a way to Libya. At the beginning of March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned of increasing humanitarian needs and “thousands” of stranded people. Local government officials say that the population of the city – around 120,000 according to a 2012 census – has doubled, or even tripled, in the past couple of years in part because of stranded migrants. But there are no reliable statistics.

“I only thought about death”

Temperatures in the desert around Agadez soar to around 55 C (130 F). There is no protection from the elements, and the trip across the barren landscape to the Libyan border takes three to four days. Still, being abandoned once didn’t discourage Ousmane from trying again.

The first time, the driver who was taking him had been spooked when he heard that a military patrol was close by. He told the 25 people in the back of the pickup truck to get out and then sped off across the sand. “He wanted to escape because when [the military] catch drivers they go to jail,” Ousmane explained.

For the next day and night, the group was alone with only a little bit of water they had carried with them. It soon ran out. Three young boys and two older men died from the heat and dehydration. “I thought I was going to die,” Ousmane said. “For 24 hours, I only thought about death.”

In a stroke of luck, a French military patrol from a base close to the Libyan border found Ousmane and the other survivors and brought them to safety.

Three months later, Ousmane tried again. He left Agadez with 20 other people, including nine women and two small children. When they stopped for a rest, the driver told the passengers that he was going to a nearby town to get gas and food. “He took the vehicle with him [and] left us, just like that,” Ousmane said. The driver never came back.

“As far as you could see, there was nothing,” Ousmane continued, his voice rising as he described the empty expanse of sand that surrounded him. “The only thing you could do was cover your head with your clothing to provide some shade.”

One day stretched into two, and then three and four. Again, Ousmane thought he was going to die. But on the fifth day, a trading caravan appeared on the horizon. Ousmane was rescued. Miraculously, this time, no one died.

1 / 3
Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
2 / 3
Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
3 / 3
Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.

Forced into more dangerous routes

The route from Agadez to Libya has always been dangerous. The desert is difficult to navigate, the environment unforgiving. If a lone pickup goes off course or breaks down, there is little hope its passengers will survive. Even before the anti-smuggling law, the corpses of abandoned migrants were found from time to time. People who reached Europe often told stories about callous drivers who left passengers to die when they fell out as the trucks bounced over the uneven terrain.

For the EU, these stories are evidence that the migration business must be stopped: as long as it continues, the argument goes, migrants will be subjected to abuse by smugglers. But critics say that EU-supported policies are intensifying, not mitigating, the dangers and making the route to Libya even more deadly.

☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief

1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:

In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.

2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard

The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.

3. Co-opting militias

July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.

4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration

European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.

5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism

For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.


Since the anti-smuggling law was put in place, the International Organization for Migration has recorded a “marked increase” in the number of migrants abandoned in the desert. Military patrols now monitor water wells and the most direct routes to the border, forcing drivers and their passengers deeper into the desert. Among former and current smugglers and local government officials in Agadez, it is common knowledge that the fear of arrest is resulting in drivers abandoning their passengers when they suspect a military patrol is close by.

It is impossible to know just how many people have died in the desert as a result. But more than 6,500 have been rescued by EU-funded, IOM-coordinated search and rescue missions since October 2016 – around the same time the Nigerien government began enforcing the anti-smuggling law. “What’s the percentage of those saved compared to those who didn’t make it? We don’t know,” Alberto Preato, an IOM programme manager in Niger, said. “The desert is enormous.”

Life in the ghetto

Back in Agadez, survivors of failed desert crossings – and people trying to reach Libya for the first time – end up stuck in difficult conditions while they search for a way out. The tallest structure in the city is a centuries-old, eight-storey, mud-packed minaret. Most of the other buildings are low compounds surrounded by seven- to eight-foot tall red-brown walls. Each compound is like a small fort, with its outer walls concealing what’s inside.

In the sprawling western suburbs of the city, where the roads are made of deeply rutted dirt and many homes have no electricity or water, a number of these compounds house migrants. People in Agadez call them ghettos. Before the law, their existence was accepted, but running a ghetto now can land someone in jail. Owners must either pay bribes to the police to turn a blind eye or migrants must play a game of cat and mouse to avoid being caught.

Ousmane was staying in one of these compounds towards the end of March. Police had raided it the day before. He sat on reed mats on a dirt floor surrounded by graffiti-covered walls while sharing his story. There was no running water, electricity, or furniture in the house – only a small gas burner and a collection of battered pans stacked against one wall. Young men from various West African countries trickled in in their twos and threes; clothes dirt-stained and ripped. They didn’t all come at once, they said, because they were suspicious that a visitor might have been part of a police trap and wanted to minimise their chances of all being caught.

In total, there were around 17 people staying in the ghetto. Several were clearly boys under the age of 18. “There are a lot of us who have been picked up by the police,” Ousmane said.

Eric Reidy/IRIN
Ousmane Bah, 22, in a ghetto of Agadez.

The anti-smuggling law criminalises the migration business, not people migrating. So Ousmane and the others aren’t technically breaking the law by being in Agadez. That, apparently, doesn’t stop the police from detaining them for two to three days when they are caught. “We spend the night here, and at 2 a.m., if the cops arrive, we leave running, only wearing our shorts, and then have to sneak back in like thieves,” Ousmane said.

By March, this had been his life in Agadez for close to a year. He had paid $700 to the smugglers who abandoned him in the desert and was out of money. Even if he could afford it, he wasn’t sure he would want to try to reach Libya again after his two close calls. Returning home also wasn’t an option, though. He was still afraid of his father’s killers and had applied for refugee status with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. After five months of waiting without news, he grew impatient and gave up.

Some of the young men and boys in the ghetto were still trying to reach Libya and Europe. Others had given up. In mid-May, Ousmane ended up trying to cross the desert again. This time, he made it to Libya and was in Tripoli trying to find a way to cross the sea.

Returning home as last resort

Perhaps the best indication of just how effective the crackdown on smuggling has been is the number of people participating in IOM’s programme for assisted voluntary return. The programme – funded by the EU – helps migrants who decide to go back, for whatever reason, return to their home countries. In 2015 – the year before the anti-smuggling law came into effect – IOM assisted just over 1,700 people to return home from northern Niger. In 2017, the number jumped to more than 7,000. So far this year, IOM has already facilitated the return of over 5,000 people.

Some of the people opting to return made it to Libya and ended up in detention centres or were forced into slavery. After escaping, they returned to Niger, according to Preato, the IOM programme manager. Others were rescued in the desert or ended up stuck in Agadez. Still others went to Algeria in search of work and were dumped in the desert north of Agadez after being caught up in what Human Rights Watch has described as a “wave of deportations” carried out by the Algerian government. Regardless, the decision to go home is usually an absolute last resort.

Alasan Bah’s story is typical.

One afternoon in March, Bah, a 33-year-old from Gambia, was outside an IOM centre in Agadez. He was sitting on a cinder block in the shadow of a wall doing the best he could to avoid the heat. About 15 other people were gathered around in the dust. All of them were waiting to return to their countries.

Eric Reidy/IRIN
IOM centre in Agadez.

Alasan had left Gambia two years earlier, in March 2016. He had been working in a restaurant, but was frustrated by what felt like a dead-end job. “The salary was from hand to mouth. That’s why I left,” he said. “I decided to find greener pastures outside.”

His search for better opportunity took him to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and finally Algeria. “This bad road to Europe was not my intention,” he said. Instead, he was one of many young Africans migrating within the continent. But, after two years he was giving up.

“You cannot just keep working as a donkey,” he said. “I was looking for my chance, but I can see that it is not easy. That is why I am returning to my country.”

Alasan wanted to start a small business buying and selling goods when he got home, but he didn’t even have enough money to pay for his own bus ticket back. Almost two months later, he was back in Gambia. “Many people and other members of the family [are] saying I am a loser, calling me all such names, because I come home empty-handed,” he wrote in a text message. “Every day, life is getting hard. No work. So survival is not easy.”

For many, starting from scratch while facing the ostracisation that comes with going home empty-handed is not an acceptable option.

Better to risk it than die poor

On an oppressively hot evening at the end of March, a 31-year-old from Sierra Leone who asked to be called Mousa sat at a table outside of a hotel in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. An diesel generator whirred in the background as he told the story of how his attempt to reach Europe stalled even before he could make it to Agadez.

Mousa was born in one of Sierra Leone’s richest diamond-producing regions, but the profits from the trade didn’t benefit the local population. His education was interrupted by the civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, and he wasn’t able to continue after his first year of primary school.

Mousa’s opportunity to escape poverty came during the Ebola epidemic. His big break? A job with the Red Cross burying the bodies of people who had died from the virus. “We buried more than 20 to 25 people per day – women and children,” Mousa said.

The job paid well enough for him to save some money – money he used to buy a taxi that he hoped would give him a good source of income when the epidemic finally ended. By the time he realised the taxi had a faulty engine, it was too late. He didn’t have enough cash left to afford repairs. That was the last straw. “I decided to leave,” he said. “Each time when you start rising, you’re going to fall and you don’t have someone that can assist you.”

He was also frustrated by Sierra Leone’s political class, which he said enriched itself from corruption instead of creating opportunity and a social safety net for the poor. “We look at all these things and we say: ‘Here is not a place to live.’ So we have to go and find another place,” Mousa said.

Before leaving Sierra Leone, Mousa already knew about the crackdown on migration in Agadez and the dangers of crossing the desert. He had heard the reports about slavery, kidnapping, and torture in Libya and the stories of shipwrecks and people drowning in the Mediterranean. He even knew about the hostility directed towards African migrants in Europe. None of it deterred him. The way he saw it, he was born poor in Africa, and if he stayed on the continent, he would die poor, too. Compared to that fate, the risks involved in trying to reach Europe seemed worth it – regardless of the obstacles the EU tried to place in his way.

“Either you die or… you make it,” Mousa said.


Next in Destination Europe: Deportation
The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.