‘I saw skeletons in the Sahara Desert’

West African migrants travel dangrously through the Sahara Desert every year
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When Ibrahim left Ghana in June 2019 for Niger, it was meant to be the springboard out of abject poverty for him and his family.  

For nine months, the 26-year-old butcher spent time in the ghettos of Agadez, a crossroad for people on the move and hive for migrant smugglers.

He waited for the right moment with assurances from smugglers for the death-defying journey through the Sahara Desert to Libya and then Europe.

“In the early part of 2020, I finally got a break. The smugglers demanded $2,000 per head to take about 30 of us in a pickup across the Sahara. When we got to Libya, we paid another $1,000 to cross the sea to Europe.  The day we left; we wore a mask and carried just a small backpack. The entire vehicle had one jerry can of water,” he told The Fourth Estate.

They left in a convoy of seven vehicles. The only encounter with the law was a lonely police checkpoint on the immediate outskirts of Agadez, Ibrahim, recalled. Not much of a check happened. The rest of the journey was through an endless expanse of sand as far as the eye could see.

A day into what was to be a three-day journey, the vehicle Ibrahim was travelling on broke down. He and his colleagues became a dough in an oven; the sun baked them so severely that one person lost consciousness from dehydration. Their water was rationed with a syringe. A drip on the tongue at a time, nothing more.

Eight Bodies, Heartbreaking Note Found In Car Stranded In Libyan Desert - Zenger News
Abandoned vehicles such as this are common in the Sahara Desert              Credit: Zenger News

The few hours they were promised the vehicle would be fixed turned into a day, then two.

For two days, they took turns sleeping in a congested pick-up truck, while stranded in sand dunes. The women wanted to go back to Agadez. The men had the patience to wait for the next truck. But the water in the jerrycan was fast draining.

“People were just falling left and right in the sand out of fatigue. The combination of the hot sand and dust was wicked,” Ibrahim recalled, shaking his head.

Eventually, on the third day, another vehicle arrived. But the journey took more than a day to make it to Libya. There were more stops, where the smugglers paid bribes. It was the most horrifying journey of his life, he said.

“I saw dead bodies in the sand, there were skeletons, bags, and shoes on the route. By the time we got to Libya, almost everyone in the vehicle was crying,” he remembered, breaking into tears for the first time in years.

Skeletons Of The Sahara | KPBS Public Media
Skeletal remains of migrants are said to be common sight in the Sahara Desert Credit: KPBS

At this point, he stopped and mopped beads of sweat. It was like a mock demonstration of his job as a cleaner in a hotel in Niamey.

Ibrahim said he stayed in Libya for 10 months and returned to Ghana because of COVID-19.

“I ran out of money. I couldn’t get any job to keep going. There was an evacuation of Ghanaians by the International Migration Organization. I joined and returned to Ghana in November 2020.”

He returned safely, but the feeling of an unaccomplished mission kept eating away his sanity. So, he jumped into a bus again. Niger is now his temporary home as he eyes another sojourn through the desert.

He found the cleaning job through a Nigerian friend he made in Libya.

“I’m accumulating enough money to try my luck again. I want to go to Italy. I have friends there,” the former butcher from Banda in the Bono Region said.

His friends in Italy sold to him the prospects of a better life in Italy once he crossed the twin hurdles of the desert and the Mediterranean.

These friends got to Italy with the help of smuggling rings.

But when Ibrahim arrived in the West African country deep in the Sahara, he began to understand the scale of the smugglers’ deceit and his friends’ oversimplification of the dangers that awaited him.

These smuggling rings also have links to other countries in North Africa including Morroco and Algeria.

The story of Ibrahim and other African migrants was the focal point for the discussion when more than 200 stakeholders gathered in Niamey for Regional Conference on Media and Migration in West and Central Africa this year.

Celebrate successful migrants

The conference took place within the framework of the project, “Empowering Youth in Africa through Media and Communication”, which has been implemented since 2019 in eight West and Central African countries—Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

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A section of some of the delegates at the conference

The project is funded by the Government of Italy through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS). The Regional Conference, which marked the end of the project, engaged the participants in a reflection on the main issues related to the media coverage of migration.

It became obvious at the conference that many young people are making their decisions to travel from uninformed positions.

The media is, therefore, seen as an antidote for the information deficit and the misinformation that create fertile grounds for young people to make their decisions to embark on perilous journeys across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Europe.

West Africa’s high unemployment is a push factor that drives thousands of young people annually out of their countries.

International Migration Organisation’s data shows more than 100,000 young people make this extremely risky journey each year

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, extreme poverty, food insecurity, and the predatory behaviour of authoritarian regimes also prompt people to flee their countries to find alternatives both within Africa itself (about 90% of African migrants remain on the continent) and in Europe.

Africa Union’s (AU) data suggests that only 20% of migrants actually leave Africa. More migrants move from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa than those crossing the Sahara to North Africa to reach Europe.

But even before they join the dingy boats for the make-or-break journey across the Mediterranean, an average of 25 migrants lost their lives daily on their way to North Africa, IOM data revealed.

Travelling to Europe. CREDIT THE GUARDIAN scaled
Thousands risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe on dingy boats                     Credit: The Guardian

From 2014 to 2019, at least 7,400 people died on Africa’s migration routes.

These numbers notwithstanding, there were echoes of dissatisfaction at the conference about skewed media reportage which paints migration as irregular, dangerous and unwarranted.

“There are stories about the success stories of migrants that must be told.  We are not telling enough of these stories. If we don’t do it, others will in a manner they deem fit,” Peter Iorter, the Executive Director/CEO at Safer-Media Initiative, said.

The success stories of African entrepreneurs, academics, politicians among others remain untold, he said.

Niamey Declaration on Migration

In a declaration read by Ghana’s Deputy Minister of Information, Fatimatu Abukakar, the participants from the eight countries rallied the media and civil society organisation operating in the field of migration:

  • Ensure the diversification of narratives, including through the treatment of the subject from various angles, to contribute to the provision of comprehensive information on migration;
  • Support the production of diversified editorial content in local languages on migration;
  • Make narratives in migration-related editorial content more inclusive, by engaging more voices from youth, women, and people living with disabilities, as well as stakeholders;
  • Contribute to the deconstruction of stereotypes and other prejudices relating to migrants;

Participants also wanted development partners to “Support initiatives to enhance the plural and inclusive representation of migrants and the diversification of narratives on migration; strengthen the capacity of media and fact-checking organisations in the region to counter misinformation and disinformation on migration; strengthen national and cross-border collaboration between media from the region and other relevant regions to foster collaborative journalism in media coverage of migration.”

They also recommended that governments in the eight countries should do the following:

  • Adopt access to information law, in conformity with the African Union model law and international standards, and ensure their effective implementation to guarantee the right to information;
  • Strengthen mechanisms and arrangements for the safety of journalists, particularly in relation to the production of migration-related content;
  • Promote policies and mechanisms that support pluralism, diversity and economic viability of the media;
  • Pursue capacity-building initiatives for media professionals, particularly on the treatment of information related to migration;
  • Encourage and support research initiatives on the causes, effects, and dynamics of migration in West and Central Africa;
  • Support the creation or development of migration information and documentation centres to facilitate access to information sources;
  • Adopt and implement strategies to popularise media and information literacy among young people in order to equip them with the necessary skills to critically research, verify, evaluate and use information.

SOURCE: THE FOURTH ESTATE