Podcast 6: Crossing the Desert

Promise left her home country of Nigeria after her parents died and she felt her life was in danger. The desert crossing took three weeks, during which she had little food or water. She eventually reached Libya, where she was badly beaten. In November 2016, the MOAS crew rescued her from an overcrowded rubber dingy in the Central Mediterranean.

Welcome to the MOAS podcast where we want to include you in what we do, to explore different angles of migration, and help you to better understand the people we save. Our focus of this week’s podcast is on those individuals who traverse the dangerous terrain and instability of North Africa in search of a path to Europe.

The Sahara Desert is over nine million kilometres square and covers 11 African states.  One careless step on the journey north can mean dehydration, starvation and death. 

No one truly knows how many people have gone missing or died making this journey, yet some international organisations believe that even more people are perishing in the desert than die making the sea crossing.

Our journey takes us to Agadez, a fourteenth century trading post in West Africa and gateway to the Sahara. 

To explain more about this region is Petra Suric Jankov, Business Development Specialist for the Catholic Relief Services. She explains its connection to migration and what her organization is proposing to help migrants and communities.

How important is Agadez in Western Africa as a point of departure? 

Agadez has always been a very important transit and trade city in Northern Africa in general. It was a point of trade for the Tuaregs for a very long time and it really is sort of your last point of access before the Sahara. It has historically been a tourist hub; there were flights directly from France at a time and it’s an oasis in the middle of the desert with this beautiful architecture and sun dried mud homes, and there’s a very famous mosque built in the 1500s.  So it’s been a very important trade spot, but it’s also that last spot in Niger before we move forward into Northern Africa and across the Mediterranean, so it’s a very important spot both historically and today.

How reliant is the local economy now on this mass migration north?

I want to be a little bit careful about characterising this as mass migration north.  There’s a little bit of confusion in the media and the tendency to sensationalise and focus on the abuse of this mass migration flows but if you look at the statistics, barely nine percent of the migrants in Europe are coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and really only one point seven percent of the population of Sub-Sahelan Africa are immigrants.  So it’s not really this mass migration new thing, it’s something that is getting a little bit more media attention now mostly because of the Syria crisis and the routes that have opened up through Greece and now have closed off.

But I will say that there is mass migration which is part of a cultural phenomenon in Western Africa and that’s something we can talk about a little later.  But that is something I want to clarify, it is not necessarily a mass migration wave north.  But in terms of what has been happening recently to the local economy, with the tourist industry having waned in Agadez with the Tuareg revolutions about ten years ago, now there’s no direct flights from France anymore, there’s fewer tourists that are coming and there is less of a demand internationally for Tuareg artisona. The people of Agadez have had to rely on other sources of livelihoods to continue living so the skills that they used for trade and for tourism are now being transferred to assisting migrants that are arriving at this point of transit, its the same kinds of transferrable skills they’re just applying them in a different context.

What is CRS proposing to do dissuade people using Agadez to migrate?

So I think it’s important to emphasize that we are not trying to stop migrants to attempt to make crossings.  I think one of the things that is sometimes misrepresented is this notion that we want to stop migration, that we want to stop people from coming up, we want to stop them from crossing.  What CRS and other actors are trying to do is better inform the migrants that are arriving in Agadez and give them the full and real picture of what is happening and what awaits them. For example, when I was in Agadez in February and I got to speak with some of the migrants there, they talked about not really knowing what awaited them and hearing success stories about how the desert is really very small and how the Mediterranean is just a bit of a larger river. It’s really important that we address these rumours and misconceptions and provide migrants with the right information and the full information so that they can make the right decision, so that is one thing.

The other part of it is also to not forget the host communities and to not even forget the reasons that these migrants are attempting the crossings.  It’s to provide them with alternatives, so when we are speaking about informing migrants and telling them ‘crossing the Sahara is really dangerous and the Mediterranean is not a river, you risk drowning, its cold, it’s very long, starvation, dehydration’, they are going to respond ‘that’s ok, what other choice do I have’.  So what we need to do is we need to both inform and we need to provide alternatives for both migrants and the host communities who live off of supporting them and facilitating them on this journey.  So CRS is planning to start activities, small income generating activities that are both transferable, things like hair cutting, small restoration, activities that migrants can take with them when they learn the skill and the trade and then go back to their communities and perhaps start a business.  We are also targeting host communities and providing them with alternative sources of income so they really don’t have to rely on trying to smuggle migrants across the desert.  So that’s really a two pronged approach and that’s both focused on information and on alternative incomes for migrants themselves.

Will it work?

You know that’s the million dollar question isn’t it.  We’re not going to be solving anything in the long term with just providing migrants with some skills about gaining some extra income at this point.  What’s going to happen, we’re going to need to do more of a coordinated international approach.  We need to not just focus on places like Agadez that are points of transit, we’re going to have to work on countries of origin.  We need to address the real routes of this problem and the problem is that most of these migrants are young, they’re under 30, they’re male.  They say that they don’t have any job opportunities where they’re coming from.  So that’s what they’re looking for, they’re looking for ways to feed their families and we need to find ways to address that at all levels, not just in Agadez but in the communities where they’re coming from. So, it’s something that’s going to work hopefully in the short term but it’s not a long term solution.  We need to work better as an international community to find better solutions for the long run.

What have people who returned to Niger have explained about the journey? How do they describe the process?  What do they experience? 

Typically, what we’ve heard is happening is there’s a couple, one or two success stories of someone in their community or in their family that has made it across and has made it to Europe, they provide hope to those left behind.  And people decide that they have no other options and they attempt to go on this long journey across West Africa, they pool money, all their life savings and their family contributions and they take everything that own in their pockets to go for this one agenda, making it to Europe to make money to feed their families back home.  Many say that their ultimate goal isn’t to stay in Europe, it is to provide for their families and eventually return to their countries and continue to help the development there.

So when they start on this journey, they travel across West Africa pretty freely, there’s a very open flow of movement in West Africa thanks to the ECOWAS protocol where migrants in West African countries, they can easily enter and cross borders without visas.  So Agadez is one of those last points in West Africa where migrants when they arrive they’re still legal, it was an easy route up until that point. It’s once they arrive in Agadez that things become more complicated, it’s when they have to start paying off the smugglers and the truck drivers and the people who tell them ‘we know the best route’ and they have to find lodging.  That’s when most end up losing all the money that they have once they get to Agadez.  Some stay, try to stay long enough to make more money, some have just enough left to make the promise of being transported across the desert.

Then what typically happens and what we’ve heard from many of the migrants who have attempted the crossing and failed is they’ll say half way through the desert they’ll get dropped off the truck and say ‘give us more money or we’ll leave you here’ and they do and they leave them and they have to find and fend for themselves or they get to Libya and they’re in a stateless situation and they have very few networks there.  So they’re trying to connect to what they’ve heard through the grapevine but if any point in the transit gets broken if there’s any link that gets miscalculated, they’re left on their own and that’s when the dangers become extraneous.  They try to find their way back, they get lost in the desert, many perish. But those who do find their way back always say, I wish I knew and if I knew now what I knew then I would’ve never ever tried.

Do you know how many are making the journey and if so, do you know how many are not making it?

 I don’t think anyone really knows how many are making the journey.  There is an attempt to try to track the migration flows.  The government of Niger is responsible for counting the number of migrants who arrive in-country but for example an organisation like IOM, the International Organisation for Migration here in Niger, has set up two monitoring flow stations near Agadez in Arlit and Séguédine where they try to register migrants that are crossing and interview them and get a little bit more information about their motivation and their education and their demographics.

However the number of migrants observed at these transit points vary and have significantly reduced since September 2016.  So there was a huge record number of migrants recorded at both these flow stations and with the government last year, but when the EU came in and the bilateral negotiations started both with the EU and with other governments within the EU, namely Germany and Italy, the government of Niger started crackdowns on illegal smuggling. Now the target isn’t to try to stop migrants from going.  What they’re trying to do is to stop the abuse and the smugglers. So when these crackdowns happened, migrants figured it out quickly and smugglers adjusted their routes so now they’re attempting to circumvent these traditional points of transit and putting themselves in even greater danger because they’re travelling on off beaten roads that are not monitored, they’re travelling in the dark and they’re going in much more complicated ways which increase their journey times and increase their own dangers.  So there is a sense that the migration flows have dropped because we’re not counting and not able to see any of them but no one truly believes that the numbers have truly dropped.  There is really a web, a coordinated web of information between the smugglers and all of the points of access and then sometimes they’ll know ‘hey there’s going to be a crackdown tomorrow’, they’re going to call the bus that’s in Niamey or that’s in Abuja and say ‘wait a couple of days while this happens and go this way because they’re going to crackdown on this side’, so it’s not really clear to anyone how many have actually tried and definitely not clear how many have perished.

What is CRS’s response to local authorities stopping migrants attempting to make the crossing?

We work at the community level as an organisation that is a humanitarian and development organisation.  We work at the community level with communities.  Our response so far has been to observe and look at the dangers of what’s happening.  What we’re planning to do is to increase awareness around the needs of focusing not only on increasing security which is really where the EU’s strategy has been so far but also to hone in more on these alternatives for migrants and host communities.  What we’re trying to do is raise awareness about the needs of the populations that are living of off this trade and assisting migrants along the way so that they can just make better informed decisions.

We don’t get involved at the policy level in any means but we’re trying to get involved with the communities asking what they need, what they want and provide them with that assistance.  Many have said that they need assistance in starting small businesses like restoration and that’s not a difficult to do if you’re trained to cook and grill some things, if we provide them starter kits then they can easily start their own business and hopefully earn enough money to be diswayed away from earning money in smuggling. That’s our approach to provide alternatives and information but at the end of the day the decision on where to go, how to move that’s a right that every person has and migrants themselves should be allowed to make those decisions on their own.

In our next podcast, we’re looking at unaccompanied minors. 

We’ll investigate their experiences on the journey, what it’s like coming to Europe without parents and what organizations in Europe are doing to help them.

Until then you can follow us on our social media and check out our latest updates on facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube and now AudioBoom, or support our rescue missions by giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea.

From all of us here at MOAS: goodbye.




This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained