AGADEZ, Niger (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a dark, dirt-floor house in the back streets of Agadez in central Niger, 22 young women from Nigeria scrape by on sex work trying to save money for the 900 mile (1,450 km) journey home.
Around the corner, 50 Sudanese men huddle under a makeshift tent in a trash-strewn lot, unable to return to their war-torn region of Darfur with most having no plan and nowhere to go.
Down the road, migrants from half a dozen West African countries squat in mud ghettos, knowing it is too dangerous to continue on to Europe and too costly to turn back.
For years Agadez, an ancient trading town on the edge of the Sahara, has been a key stop for West Africans traveling north - mostly young men in search of better opportunities abroad.
But since the European Union (EU) moved to cut off entry routes two years ago, it has become less a way-station and more a dead-end.
Today Agadez hosts thousands of vulnerable people from different corners of Africa, and there are signs that the flurry of humanitarian activity might be drawing in more.
“Life here is very terrible,” said Aisha, a 24-year-old Nigerian, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as she leaned against a brothel wall in a small, fly-blown yard.
Aisha was headed to Italy four months ago when she ran out of money and was forced into sex work to survive. She no longer cares about reaching Europe, and is desperate to get home.
“Most of us are stranded here,” she said of her housemates, who make about a dollar a day and pool their money for food.
Migration through Agadez used to take place openly, with hundreds of overloaded pickup trucks leaving each Monday at sundown for a long drive across the desert.
But in 2016, Niger began arresting smugglers and patrolling the main routes in exchange for EU development aid.
These days the smugglers charge more, take deadlier routes and organize fewer trips, the U.N. migration agency said.
Still, migrants continue to arrive.
“I am scared, but I have no option. I must keep on,” said Azeez Sulaiman from Nigeria, who arrived two weeks ago.
Even though all of his money was stolen, he plans to head to Europe as soon as the chance arises. Some of the men with whom he shares a mud compound have been waiting for three years.
From Agadez, the route to Europe splits northwest to Algeria and northeast to Libya, both adjacent to Niger and both gateways to the Mediterranean. But controls have tightened there too.
Last year, for the first time, the U.N. migration agency recorded more people entering Niger from the north than leaving - partly because migrants are moving on undetected and partly because people are turning back.
Now migrants arrive in Agadez from both directions, fleeing violence and slavery in Libya and being sent back across the border from Algeria, where anti-migrant sentiment has grown.
In the latest challenge facing authorities, about 1,000 Sudanese asylum seekers showed up in the first weeks of 2018.
“I went to Libya but found nothing there. Many people arrested me and beat me every day,” said Adama Ismail, a 24-year-old who fled Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region in 2016.
“Some people told me the organizations here protect you.”
Local officials and aid workers suspect that what drew them is the presence of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which can give people the right to asylum under international law - sometimes resulting in a ticket to Europe.
But for most new arrivals, this is an unlikely outcome.
“We fear in the confusion with the UNHCR here, people will think they can become eligible for refugee status,” Agadez Governor Sadou Soloke told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We don’t want to give false hope.”
UNHCR’s country representative Alessandra Morelli did not think that was why people came to Agadez but she acknowledged the situation was tense and people’s futures uncertain.
“Solutions will be found for them,” said Morelli. “We will have to see what the government is planning.”
Although aid agencies are active in Agadez, some people in ghettos and brothels said they had received little help.
“There is a lot of work to do,” said Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to Agadez last month.
The U.N. migration agency has flown home thousands of migrants from Niger through its voluntary repatriation program, but the people that the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to in Agadez said they had not heard of any such help.
Some migrants hiding out in squalid conditions were unsure what laws applied and what protections they were entitled to.
“We have not presented ourselves to any organization because we are afraid,” said Eric Nginjoh, a human rights activist, who fled conflict in one of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions several months ago after receiving death threats.
As migrants stay longer, need more assistance and have less money to spend, the risk of tensions with locals is high, aid workers and analysts said, emphasizing that Niger’s willingness to host them should not be taken for granted.
“Niger is supporting all the weight of migration,” said Mohamed Anacko, president of the Agadez regional council.
In a dirt yard of one ghetto, West African men pass the time playing draughts while in another dozens of Sudanese men sit by a tree, unable to work without knowing the local language.
One of them, Ismail, was studying English at an international school in Darfur when he saw friends and family killed. He wanted to get to Europe but his hope has faded.
“Right now my future is going black,” he said.