The hidden tragedy of migrants crossing north through Africa


Behind the fate of thousands of migrants who have died while attempting to cross by sea to Europe lies the even greater tragedy of those who perish on the overland journey through Africa to reach the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, according to estimates of UN agency the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Those who survive the trying conditions of the clandestine routes north from sub-Saharan countries face further danger in Libya, where many are herded into detention centres amid appalling conditions, while others fall victim to kidnappers. Carine Fouteau reports.

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Since 2014, least 15,000 migrants have died at sea while attempting to reach the shores of Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The United Nations agency, which collects weekly data on both the number of migrants rescued at sea and an estimation of those who perished during their journey, has recorded 2,793 deaths of people attempting to reach Europe between January and October this year. Most of the victims died from drowning while crossing the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, a route which is considered the most dangerous of any in the world for migrants who have no legal documentation.

But the Mediterranean is far from representing the only danger for migrants travelling north from sub-Saharan countries. Thousands of people have died on the overland journey to North Africa, which typically involves enduring extreme temperatures of cold at night and heat during the day, travelling in overcrowded vehicles over inhospitable terrain. While there are no accurate figures of the numbers of victims, there are numerous reports of migrants dying from dehydration and physical violence.

A map showing the estimates by the International Organization for Migration of the sites of the deaths and disappearances of migrants (from 2014-2017) in countries on major migration routes to Europe. © IOM A map showing the estimates by the International Organization for Migration of the sites of the deaths and disappearances of migrants (from 2014-2017) in countries on major migration routes to Europe. © IOM
“One thing we still don’t have is any estimate of the number of deaths in the desert,” said Richard Danziger, the IOM’s director for West and Central Africa, speaking at a news conference earlier this month in Geneva. “We assume, and I think we have said before, that it has to be at least double those who die in the Mediterranean. But we really have no evidence of that, it’s just an assumption. We just don’t know.” That would suggest that more than 30,000 people have died over the past three years on the overland route through Africa.

Danziger said that in Niger, through which passes one of the principal routes north, people smugglers have become increasingly impeded by a clampdown launched by local authorities, raising the risk of some of them abandoning their human cargo in the desert to escape arrest.  

The European Union (EU) has encouraged Niger to take tougher action against the people smugglers, and this has included dispersing the concentrations of migrants who gather, notably in the central city of Agadez, waiting to embark on the clandestine journeys. But among the effects of the clampdown is that of making the routes more dangerous – and more expensive.

But those migrants who do make it to Libya, the last African state before the hazardous sea crossing to Europe, face further danger from dreadful living conditions which have acused numerous fatalities. Once again, the dangers for the migrants are accentuated by EU policies to encourage Libya, in exchange for millions of euros in aid, to detain them in the country.

“What happens in Libya is far scarier to people than dying,” added Danziger, who said the IOM was addressing a message to migrants that, “you do not want to get caught in Libya.”

The photos above (click on arrow tabs) are of migrants who survived kidnappings in Libya. They were taken earlier this year by Aurélien Sigwalt, a member of Doctors Without Borders, who spent six months in Libya on mission for the French NGO. They show evidence of severe malnutrition, scabies and beatings.

The French NGO Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), MSF, has set up missions in the capital Tripoli, since 2016, and, beginning this year, in Misrata, to dispense medical aid to the populations of the migrant detention centres. Aurélien Sigwalt, a pharmacist who spent six months serving until earlier this year with one of the MSF teams in Misrata, recounted a visit to the morgue of a local hospital. “The ‘fridge’ was full, there were 16 corpses on the floor,” he said. “The smell was foul.”

One of the dangers migrants face in Libya is kidnapping by gangs who demand ransom payments from their relatives. “Doctors led us to a house where people just freed by their kidnappers lived,” recalled Sigwalt after returning from his mission, who described the emaciated appearance of the survivors, many of whom are tortured by their captors to encourage their families to pay the ransoms. Victims of the kidnappers are sometimes held for up to six months in starvation conditions. “Some arrive there dying, others have shiny eyes, with a haggard appearance,” added Sigwalt. “Others still have contracted serious illnesses.” He said there were cases of men and women who were unable to walk for several days, some who were incapable of speaking. “When one talks of malnutrition, these are people who have only skin covering their bones,” he said.

After interviewing both survivors of kidnapping and other migrants held in detention centres in Libya, MSF estimates that there are probably thousands, even tens of thousands, of migrants who have perished from ill-treatment on Libyan soil over recent years. In the absence of any official data, the tragic fate of the migrants in Libya has been corroborated by numerous witness accounts reported by various NGOs and in the media. The Cairo-based Mixed Migration Hub (MHUB), whose supporting members include the IOM, the UNHCR (the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees), UNICEF (the UN children's fund) and British NGO Save the Children, published a report in 2017 summarising interviews it had carried out with 375 migrants hoping to reach Europe from North Africa. Of these, 244 said they had personally witnessed the deaths of other migrants during their exodus, and most of these reportedly occurred in Libya. A survey by the UNHCR published in 2016 reported that migrants it interviewed believed that there were more deaths among them travelling overland than by sea.  

An indication of the extent of the tragedy was the recent discovery, reported earlier this month, of the mass detention of more than 4,000 migrants in north-west Libya, many of whom were in an advanced state of malnutrition. The migrants were trapped by fighting between two rival militias in and around the coastal town of Sabratha, from where many clandestine crossings of the Mediterranean leave. Both of the militias, called al-Ammu and Anti-Isis Operation Room, claim they have the backing of Libya’s Government of National Accord which is recognised by the UN, and the Italian government reached an agreement with one Libyan militia in August this year to prevent migrants from embarking on clandestine crossings from the North African country. However, after an initial dip in the numbers making the journey, there has been a steady progression recorded since September.



  • The French version of this report can be found here.


English version by Graham Tearse


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