Shattered dreams: Returning migrants in Agadez tell their stories

24 June, 2016
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The Sahel has a long history of migration. Most movements take place within West Africa, where migrants form a vital component of the regional economy. Today, the region is also part of the mass migration and human trafficking movement towards Europe, increasingly fueled by the impact of demographic pressure, environmental degradation, poverty and conflict.

Agadez, in central Niger, has become one of the most important hubs for north-bound West and Central African migrants. Up to 4,000 people, mostly young men but also women and children, gather here every week to make the dangerous crossing across the desert to the north.

But for many, the dream of a better life quickly turns into a nightmare and hundreds of disillusioned, often traumatized migrants also return from the north each week, with empty pockets and shattered dreams.


Stepping stone on a dangerous route

Niger’s town of Agadez has always been an important crossroads in the Sahel zone and in recent years, it has become one of the most important transit hubs on the north-bound migration route. Every night, buses come in from the capital, Niamey, and from neighbouring countries, carrying passengers from all over the region.

Twenty-three year old Alidou, has just arrived after a three-day ride from his home village in Burkina Faso. “At home, life simply was too difficult. We were farming, but there never was enough. Each year the same, and worse,” he says. The journey so far has cost him around US$60, and he has already run out of cash. The expensive trip north is a family investment, and everybody has been saving for Alidou’s journey.

“I have already called my family. They’ll send me more,” Alidou says, killing time in front of one of the many local banks offering money transfers.

With its fast-growing, young population, doubling every three decades, the Sahel struggles to provide enough opportunities for young people. Chronic drought across much of the region, as well as degraded soils and flooding in the rainy season, mean many families cannot grow enough to survive on. For Alidou’s family, putting money aside may mean missing out on a meal. Alidou tries to smile. “They were happy for me to go; they encouraged me.”

Alidou will now wait in a ‘ghetto’ – a house run by traffickers to gather migrants before the departure. To continue to Libya and, eventually, make it to Europe, Alidou will have to rely on them. But the night trip on converted pick-up trucks speeding through the dark, crammed with up to 20 people holding on to one rope, is dangerous. The desert often proves to be as deadly as the sea, which lies further ahead. Passengers fall off trucks, get lost, are attacked by bandits and kidnappers. At least 2,800 migrants died on the Central Mediterranean migrant route in 2015. The real figure may be significantly higher.

“I am not afraid. This is what I want to do. I am sure I will find my way,” Alidou says. He walks off slowly, the weight of the hopes and dreams on his narrow shoulders almost too heavy to carry.

Diary of a broken dream

Alioune, 27, is coming through Agadez in the other direction, on his way back home. As soon as he had arrived in Libya five months ago, his entire group of migrants was sold to heavily armed traffickers who locked the migrants into a courtyard and robbed them before demanding that their families send more money.

“While my family at home was struggling to gather the requested sum, I was abused, beaten and tortured.” Before finally escaping back to Niger, Alioune was kidnapped a second time. This time a friend paid for his freedom. To say that Alioune is disillusioned would be an understatement.

“I saw people killed by bullets, others left behind to die in the desert. Many have lost their money. One brother traveled with a bag with his family’s gold jewellry. Gone. Others lost members of their family. Everybody has lost something on this way. We all lost our souls.”

“All that’s left now is deep regrets. I have not found what I was looking for. I come back with empty hands. And life will be even more difficult than before as I lost my job.”

Alioune kept a diary throughout his travels. Intended to track every penny he spent, it turned into a testimony of his experiences and feelings. “I’d love to publish it, read it to young people so at least they know what they will face. Most youngsters have no idea how dangerous the trip through Libya will be. I want to help them make the right decision. Dreams are powerful. But mine have ended.” 

“Nobody will tell you what's inside this journey“

Diallo, from a small village in southern Senegal, had left his wife and three children behind. “It’s hard to survive in the village. We worked so hard on the fields, but did not earn enough. A friend made it to Europe, he now has money. I wanted the same.” But once he crossed the border to Libya, the problems started. ”I was attacked, beaten up. When I started working, they never paid me. When I insisted, a man stabbed me with a knife. I could not even go to the hospital.”

“My dream was to make enough money to build my own house, back in Senegal. Now I am glad I can at least return home safely. I will try to cultivate enough for my family. Make the best of my life.”

Alpha, standing nearby, says he left his home in The Gambia six months ago thinking he would soon be in Europe. He passed through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, having to bribe officials along the way. “This journey cost me more than $500. At the checkpoints, if you cannot pay, they beat you and won’t let you pass.”

Once he arrived in Agadez a trafficker took him across the desert to Tamanrasset in Algeria for $100. He moved from town to town relying on migrants’ networks and communities. But life continued to be hard. “There were no jobs. I never sent any money home. Even to find enough food for myself was difficult.”

After five months, his community of migrants was attacked by a mob. “They entered our campus with hammers, canes, knives. One boy had his skull cracked, another one was stabbed into the stomach. They burned our houses. I lost all money that I saved. But I am alive. That is the most important thing.”

“At home, they hide the risks involved. Nobody will tell you what’s inside this journey.”  

Transit home

On the outskirts of Agadez, the transit centre run by the International Organsiation for Migration (IOM) gathers those whose dreams have been shattered by the harsh reality. Like Alioune, Diallo and Alpha, each week hundreds of migrants return, having run out of luck, money and hope. Many have become victims of abuse and violence. Kidnappings, detention and extortion are all too common.

The centre provides them with shelter, food and counselling, and identifies the most vulnerable in need of protection and specific support. The migrants spend around a week in the centre before IOM assists with their transport to Niamey where they receive a bus ticket home.

Exhausted but happy to return to relative safety, the young men sit together in small groups, quietly chatting with their countrymen. At the same time, most feel they have failed their families. Pressure from their communities is immensely high.

A 16-year old boy who has just called his grandfather for the first time in six months after fleeing back from Libya, fights to keep his composure.

“He said, don’t come back. Try again.”  

Extreme poverty, lack of employment and limited education are powerful drivers of migration across the West and Central Africa region. The continued insecurity in Mali and in the Lake Chad Basin has also triggered massive population displacements and destroyed the fragile livelihoods of millions of people.

Migrants and refugees increasingly use the same routes and means of transportation to get to their destination. While many of the migrants are young men, the groups of refugees tend to include more women and children. All find themselves in situations of increasing vulnerability and often experience abuse and violence. Particularly the most vulnerable categories need protection and emergency assistance, which includes food, medical services, psychosocial support, family tracing, legal counselling and counter-trafficking, as well as transport home.

For more information on mixed migration: www.mixedmigrationhub.org and www.iom.int/west-and-central-africa