Group died of thirst attempting to cross desert on foot to reach Algeria from impoverished, landlocked Niger
The bodies of 92 people, almost all women and children, have been found in the Sahara desert. They died of thirst after their vehicle broke down during an attempt to reach Algeria from impoverished west African country Niger.
An aid worker at the scene in Niger – the vast, landlocked country that straddles the desert between north and sub-Saharan Africa – told the Guardian that the scene was traumatic as rescuers discovered the bodies scattered in small groups around the desert.
"This is extremely difficult and the most horrible thing I have ever seen," said Almoustapha Alhacen, a resident in Arlit, a uranium mining town 50 miles from the scene, who is part of the rescue effort. "These are women and children; they were abandoned and left to die."
"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."
"They were left there for so long that their bodies are decomposed. Some of the bodies are still there."
The group was discovered after survivors reached Arlit on foot. Local experts say that the group are victims of human trafficking and are believed to have died two weeks ago as they attempted to walk 12 miles in scorching sun to reach a well after the lorry they were travelling in broke down, leaving them stranded.
Sources in Niger said that the group – who began their perilous journey across the desert in late September – comprised local people from Zinder, the second largest city in southern Niger, close to the border with Nigeria.
"We think that all these people are from the villages around Zinder," said Alhacen. "But until the investigation is finished, we cannot know all the details."
"It is very common for migrants to travel through this part of Niger," Alhacen added. "We have people from Nigeria and Burkina Faso, as well as people from Niger. They are trying to reach Libya and Algeria."
One security expert said that the group were not economic migrants, but victims of trafficking.
"This was in fact a case of poor people and children who were being trafficked to Algeria," said Moussa Akfar, a security expert based in Niamey, Niger's capital. "There is an inquiry under way but we know that this was trafficking because economic migrants go to Libya – in Libya you find people of all nationalities – from Nigeria, Cameroon and other countries, heading to Europe.
"In this case all the victims were Nigerien from Zinder, and they were being trafficked. The questions that have to be asked now is how officials on road checkpoints did not alert the authorities about this group. There is endemic corruption at work."
Details are still emerging about what happened to the group. The discovery of the 92 – including 32 women and 48 children – comes after a further 35 bodies were found earlier this week.
The two discoveries are believed to be part of the same group of migrants, who were travelling northwards in two lorries in an attempt to reach Algeria.
They died in October, only six miles from the border between Niger and Algeria, after one of their two vehicles broke down and left them stranded as it headed off looking for new parts.
Niger security sources told the local press that 21 had survived, including two who had walked across the desert to Arlit, the nearest town, and site of a plant for French nuclear giant Areva.
A further 19 who continued on their journey to Algeria and reached the town of Tamaresset in southern Algeria were turned away and repatriated back to Niger, local press reported.
The route across Niger's desert – often starting in the southern town of Zinder, then travelling through desert town Agadez – is a well-known traffickers' route for taking people to North Africa, where some try to board boats to Europe, with others ending up in Algeria seeking work.
"Zinder and Agadez, these are the main migrant routes, as well as human trafficking routes in Niger," said Johnson Bien-Aime from Plan Niger. "We know that trafficking is happening every day in these areas, but unfortunately, until now, nothing has been done about it."
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been rocked by repeated food crises in recent years. Last year aid group Save The Children said Niger was the worst place in the world to be a mother amid warnings that continuing poverty levels are driving people to undertake life-threatening journeys to higher income nations.
While many in Niger say that the incident was trafficking with Algeria as the intended destination, Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Arlit, stated that the group may have been attempting to reach Europe.
"They were probably heading to the Mediterranean to try to go to Europe, or else to Algeria to work," said Feltou.
Local rescue workers who found the bodies have said the group may have included a party from an Islamic madrasa school, given the large number of children and an elderly man among the victims who appears to be an Islamic teacher.
The plight of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is increasingly under the spotlight after a series of tragedies in which large numbers have died attempting to reach Europe, including 365 who died in Lampedusa earlier this month when a boat capsized near the Italian island.
Tens of thousands of west African migrants, many of whom have paid as much as $3,000 to be taken across the desert from Niger to North Africa, arrive in Europe by sea each year, according to the United Nations.
"Sadly this is a typical migration that has been going on over last number of years," said John Ging from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"We estimate that 80,000 make that journey every year from the Sahara to Niger, and basically they are economic migrants so impoverished they have to make these hazardous journeys."