52 children among dead Niger migrants in Sahara

Soldiers walk away from the freshly dug grave in the Sahara Desert north of Arlit, Niger. Picture: AP
Soldiers walk away from the freshly dug grave in the Sahara Desert north of Arlit, Niger. Picture: AP
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THERE were 92 of them, mostly women and children, their ­bodies partly eaten by jackals, rotting in the blistering ­Saharan heat, dead from a lack of that most basic of human requirements, water.

The corpses of 52 children, 33 women and seven men were found on the route from the northern town of Arlit in Niger to the Algerian border.

It appears that the vehicles carrying them north across the desert broke down, leaving them to die of thirst.

Northern Niger lies on a major corridor for illegal migration and people-trafficking from sub-Saharan Africa into north Africa and across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Most of those who make the perilous journey on ancient open-topped lorries are young African men in search of work.

Those who discovered the dead from the doomed convoy were puzzled by their fate.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it,” said Almoustapha Alhacen by telephone from Arlit. “It is hard to understand what these women and children were doing there.

“We found them scattered over a large area, in small groups. Some were lying under trees, others exposed to the sun. Sometimes we found a mother and her children, some of the bodies were children alone.”

Searchers found many writing slates in the luggage, suggesting the children may have been ­students in a Koranic school being taken to Algeria, perhaps to beg, Mr Alhacen said.

He added that 19 of the group had reached Algeria by foot and were repatriated to Niger by the Algerian authorities.

Officials were only alerted when a lone woman managed to stumble out of the desert earlier this month. She was picked up by a passing car which took her to Arlit, around 30 miles south of where the first of the two lorries broke down.

The next day, a father who had been walking with his two young daughters also arrived. But his children perished of thirst just a few miles outside Arlit, said Colonel Garba Makido, governor of the Niger province of Agadez. A total of 21 people survived, most of whom made their way to towns at the Algerian border.

“This is a true tragedy,” said Gen Makido. “The prosecutor has opened an investigation and we plan to do everything we can to find the lorry drivers.”

The migrants had set off in two vehicles from Arlit towards Tamanrasset in Algeria some time between late September and mid-October, officials and searchers said.

After one lorry broke down, the second turned back to look for help but was stranded and the passengers tried to return by foot. “The search is still going on,” the mayor of Arlit, Maouli Abdouramane, said by phone.

Many people flee poverty in Niger, ranked by the United Nations as the least developed country on earth. Some work in neighbouring Libya and Algeria to save money before returning home. The networks which send lorries across the desert also attract migrants from across West Africa who dream of a more prosperous life in Europe.

More than 32,000 people have arrived in southern Europe from Africa so far this year.

A crackdown by Spanish authorities has largely closed a route from the West African coast to the Canary Islands which drew tens of thousands of migrants in the mid-2000s. Instead, most now try to make the Mediterranean crossing from north Africa to southern Europe, many losing their lives when their rickety boats are wrecked.

Early last month more than 500 North Africans died in two shipwrecks off southern Italy.