DAKAR (Reuters) - At least as many migrants may be dying of hunger and thirst in the Sahara as are drowning in the Mediterranean during this year’s huge surge of human trafficking from Libya to Europe, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday.
The number of people traveling through Niger’s vast desert wastes to reach North Africa and Europe could more than double this year to 100,000, the global migration body’s Niger office said. The migrants are often abused by traffickers who abandon them to die in the desert if they run out of money.
More than 170,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Italy last year, and more than 3,000 drowned. With the numbers attempting the crossing surging this year, the IOM expects the death toll will be many times higher.
The issue raised particular alarm in Europe last month after more than 800 people were believed to have drowned in the shipwreck of a single fishing boat, the worst disaster of its kind. Most of the victims were locked below decks.
Smuggling rings have profited from lawlessness in Libya to ferry tens of thousands of people to Europe in unsafe boats. The migrants are first brought to Libya from across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
Niger’s desert town of Agadez is one of the main transit points in the Sahara for migrants leaving impoverished West African nations en route for north Africa and then Europe.
“Libya is an open door,” said Giuseppe Loprete, IOM head of mission in Niger. “In 2015, we estimate that 100,000 migrants will transit across Niger, roughly double the figure last year.”
Loprete said there was little Niger could do to stop the flow of migrants as many came from countries in the West African bloc ECOWAS - such as Nigeria, Mali, Gambia and Senegal - which allows freedom of movement between its 15 member states.
According to the latest IOM figures, an estimated 38,000 migrants crossed into Italy between January and mid-May, with the largest numbers coming from Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria, followed by Gambia, Syria, Senegal and Mali. The summer peak season for the sea crossing has barely begun.
The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime estimates migrant smuggling in Libya may be worth more than $300 million a year.
“In the desert, there are a lot of problems,” said Adama Diaw, 30, a Senegalese woman who migrated to Algeria in 2008 with her husband hoping to reach Europe but is returning home without him.
“They lock people in cages, three or four people for days, until you don’t know if they are dead. If they die, they just burn the bodies,” she said at an IOM migrant center in the Niger capital Niamey.
Smugglers sometimes imprison migrants and force their families to pay for their release, Loprete said.
Migrants were obliged to pay not only the smugglers but also bribes to security officials along the route.
“The moment they have no more money, they are left behind,” Loprete said. “People are dying in the desert as well as at sea. In fact, I would be surprised if it was not more than in the Mediterranean.”
Loprete said a recent IOM mission to the northern town of Dirkou had rescued 85 migrants who said they were abandoned in the desert by smugglers after they ran out of money. They had sheltered for two days under bushes and in the sand hoping for someone to save them.
Niger promised a crackdown after 92 migrants died of hunger and thirst in the desert in October 2013 after being abandoned by traffickers taking them to Algeria. A Reuters investigation last year found that smuggling continued with the tacit blessing of local officials.
Young men waiting in Agadez and other desert towns were at risk of recruitment by Islamist groups in the Sahara, Loprete said.
“To stop these migrant flows at the border would only generate more problems,” he said, adding that the real issue was the lack of work in their countries of origin. “We need to finance development programs at a community level so that there is not such an incentive to try to migrate.”
Loprete said the IOM was also launching EU-funded programs to educate migrants about the risks of the trip and the difficulties of life in Europe, using radio shows and getting former migrants to talk to them.
“The smugglers tell them it is just 15 kilometers from Libya to the Italian coast – but it is more like 300,” Loprete said.
Additional reporting by Abdel-Kader Boubacar Mazou in Niamey; Editing by Peter Graff