44 People Die Of Thirst Crossing The Sahara Desert On Their Way To Libya

Forty-four people have been found dead in the Sahara Desert after their truck broke down, with extreme heat and lack of drinking water causing them to die of thirst. The group of fifty migrants and refugees, which included babies and children, were on route to Libya between the cities of Agadez and Dirkou. Lawal Taher, from the Red Cross in the Bilma region of Niger, claimed that most had originated from Ghana and Nigeria. Six survivors managed to walk to a remote village to alert local officials of the deaths. The Red Cross have responded by dispatching a team to the site to gather further information.

The route through the desert represents a major migration crossing for desperate refugees. West Africans transit through Niger to Libya, where they attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy. The journey usually begins in Agadez, a town at the edge of the Sahara which has now become the capital of people smuggling in Africa. Thousands of people each week are taken through the desert, facing harsh conditions, on crowded pick-up trucks. Whilst figures of the numbers of those perishing in the Mediterranean are well recorded by aid agencies, there is little way of knowing how many have lost their lives on the route through the Sahara.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was shocked by the reports and claimed that the “deaths are part of the bigger picture as smugglers broaden the death trap from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert.” It illustrates that human smugglers will take any means “to exploit desperate refugees and migrants.” Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) operations in Niger, has stated that “the migrants are often lied to and cheated on their way [and] smugglers usually run away with their money, [leaving them] in the middle of nowhere, in a country they don’t know, trying to gain enough money to either continue the route or go back home.”

Despite the substantial focus by world leaders on the refugee crisis over the past few years, thousands continue to take the route through Libya, and cross the Mediterranean, in the hopes of reaching Europe. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are helping with search-and-rescue operations. Last week, 1500 people were rescued by a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) vessel. Vickie Hawkins, the executive director of MSF UK, told the Guardian that “the deterrence policies implemented to keep people away from Europe have little regard for the human consequences. As a result, the Mediterranean has turned into a giant cemetery with over 1500 missing or dead so far this year and tens of thousands of people detained inside Libya.” This underlines a continuing focus by the international community on securing borders rather than addressing the root humanitarian causes.

The UNHCR has reported that since January 2017, “some 17,000 migrants and refugees have crossed into Libya from Niger.” A major concern is presented by the conditions that they face within Libya, due to its ongoing political instability and insecurity. A report released 2nd June by NGO ‘Refugees International,’ highlights that migrants and refugees in Libya experience human rights abuses such as “arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, rape, forced labor, kidnapping and slavery,” This has been combined with a flourishing of smuggling groups in the region, as the head of IOM, William Lacy Swing, told Reuters that people smugglers now make around $35 billion a year, with large profits resulting from people smuggling across the Mediterranean.

Continuing deaths along the route to Europe emphasize the need for reinforced support for sea-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the provision of alternative and safer pathways for migrants and refugees, and increased international pressure on Libya to address and end its human rights failures. Some steps have been implemented with the $75.5 million appeal on May 30th by the UNHCR, in partnership with IOM, to improve humanitarian protections for Libyan civilians, refugees and asylum seekers. More efforts are necessary, however, as the international community must further continue to support international legal processes, and provide viable options to combat the widespread people smuggling industry currently preying on migrants and refugees seeking safety.