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Smugglers are abandoning migrants in the middle of a desert the size of Texas

Migrants and asylum seekers caught crossing the Sahara desert are held at a detention center in Sebha, south Libya, awaiting an uncertain fate on May 16, 2015.

REBECCA MURRAY/MCCLATCHY/TNS

By MAX BEARAK | The Washington Post | Published: July 5, 2017

The 22-year-old Nigerian woman knew that traveling to Europe along the Sahara desert's smuggling routes would be the most arduous experience of her life. If she had known how close it would bring her to death, she would never have left home at all.

That is what a women nicknamed Adoara told aid workers when she was rescued last week, according to local media reports. She and roughly 50 others spent 10 days wandering the Tenere section of the vast desert after being abandoned by their smugglers in an utterly barren expanse of land the size of Texas.

There is sand and only sand for hundreds of miles in the Tenere. As it shifts in the wind, it covers the rutted tracks of vehicles, and any sense of direction is lost. Slowly dying of thirst, Adoara resorted to drinking her own urine. She and the others buried the dead under the shifting sands until they were too exhausted to perform those last rites.

Six survived, including Adoara.

Hundreds of thousands of mostly West African migrants fleeing war, poverty and persecution have crossed this stretch of the Sahara over the past few years. They scrounge together life savings and bet them all on a treacherous journey - first across the Tenere; then farther into the Sahara, into Libya; then the choppy seas of the Mediterranean - in hopes of a better life in Europe.

The world has looked on in horror at the thousands who have died when their overloaded boats capsize at sea. And while more do perish on that final leg, so close to European shores, the sandy graveyard of the Tenere has claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

"I think we've overtalked the sea and undertalked the deserts," said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

The Tenere is located in Niger, which, per the United Nations' development rankings, has long held the grim position of world's poorest country. Smugglers in Agadez, a city on the edge of the desert that functions as a migrant transit hub, stuff the back of pickup trucks with people and then speed through the roadless expanse for days until they reach the Libyan border, where their human cargo is dealt away to new handlers. The collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, after Moammar Gaddafi was deposed, turned that country into the preferred point for embarking across the Mediterranean.

Until last year, Niger's military would escort smugglers' convoys to the Libyan border, raking in bribes along the way. An entire economy was born in the desert, with both smugglers and soldiers making money in a region where jobs had been scarce, or scarcely paid. More than 400,000 would-be asylum seekers traversed the Tenere in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration. That was four times more than the year prior. Most were young men.

Many only made it as far as Libya or Algeria, but 180,000 reached Italy last year. Some pushed north to even more prosperous countries like Germany.

In October 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a rare trip to Niger, which was followed by visits from the Italian and Dutch foreign ministers. They had one goal: to stem the flow of migrants. European countries pledged major development assistance funds if Niger would crack down on smugglers.

Late last year, Niger began to enforce a new law criminalizing the smuggling business. Military and police officers were replaced at all desert checkpoints between Agadez and the Libyan border. Raids were conducted on migrant ghettos in Agadez, aiming to shutter the shadow smuggling economy. Migrants were given incentives to voluntarily return to their countries of origin.

Half way through 2017, it appears the strategy has only succeeded in pushing smugglers and migrants like Adoara toward riskier routes where they are at lower risk of detection and detention by security forces. More than 60,000 people arrived in Italy by the end of May, putting this year on pace to pass last year's total.

Though the U.N. and IOM have registered far lower numbers of migrants passing through Agadez, that is likely because smugglers are simply avoiding the city.

"They say that very few people are coming through Agadez now, but that's not true, people are just avoiding the checkpoints now because it is illegal," said Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, a journalist based in Agadez. "So everyone has had to move their operations, but it's really not too far from here."

Reitano, the regional security analyst, said that the region's two main ethnic groups have started using new routes through lands they more firmly control. "Some Tuaregs are going via Tamanrasset in Algeria, while the Tebu are pushing their route eastward toward or even into Chad," she said. "These are much harder and longer routes. I've heard that Tebu smugglers are bringing migrants to the Tibesti Mountains in Chad and having them mine for gold to pay for the extra distance."

Crossing tougher terrain, not only without military escort but in fear of arrest by the military, has increased the odds that smugglers will abandon migrants in the desert. Other reasons for abandonment could include vehicular malfunction, low fuel, or even migrants falling off the truck and simply being left behind.

A group of 75 migrants were abandoned in the Tenere in late June, and the 23 who survived by walking 50 miles to the desert outpost of Seguedine said their drivers had gotten spooked after seeing a security vehicle, ordered them out of the truck and fled. Diallo said that story was one he was hearing with increasing frequency.

The total number of abandonments and deaths in Niger's desert is impossible to know, given the desert's vastness and the new proliferation of even more remote routes.

Monica Chiriac, an IOM spokeswoman in Niger, cautioned against drawing too close a connection between Europe's change in policy and migrants being abandoned. She also noted that the IOM has only begun search-and-rescue missions since those changes took place, leading to a spike in reported cases of abandonments. Since the missions began in April, 600 migrants have been rescued, though the IOM has only confirmed 52 deaths. The real number is certainly many times higher.

In conjunction with European governments, the IOM has ramped up education programs for migrants that aim to dissuade from crossing the Tenere.

"It's impossible to forbid migrants from taking those routes or to close down the desert," Chiriac said. "A lot of migrants come back from the desert saying 'I didn't know what it was like. Had I known, I would have never left.' Most of them don't make an informed decision when they choose this route, and we are working on changing that."

There are certainly enough horror stories for such a curriculum. The Tenere has its own perils, but once migrants are in Libya, many are bought and sold as slaves, and housed in fetid, disease-ridden cells while they work toward earning passage on boats crossing the Mediterranean. And the dangers of the sea are now well-known.

Yet tens of thousands still make it through this morbid obstacle course, and the $11.2 billion Africans sent home in remittances from Europe last year only make the rewards clearer to prospective migrants, not to mention their home country's governments who also benefit from the inflow of cash.

"It is still easier to get to Europe through Niger and Libya than anywhere else," said Diallo, the journalist in Agadez. "People want to get to Europe and get there fast."

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