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Hundreds of migrants are milling about, stranded in Agadez, Niger
Nothing could be further from the gates of paradise than this scorching, unearthly wasteland stretching out as far as the eye can see.
And yet, this is it. Hidden in the ghettos scattered on the outskirts of this ancient, turmeric-colored city, hundreds of migrants are milling about, stranded, with dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams. They're on the move to or from neighboring nations or beyond. Some, but surprisingly not most, have an eye on the ultimate prize of making it across the burning sands of the Sahara and on to what is fast becoming the elusive El Dorado: Europe. Many are children travelling alone or who have become separated from their famililes, nursing mothers, newborns and throngs of young men angry that their quest has been cut short.
Once the migration capital of Africa, Agadez has become Europe's newest frontier
Agadez was once the migration capital of Africa, a crossroads for people on the move, a bustling business hub for smugglers, roadside shops selling masks, and sunglasses for the daunting journey, traffickers awaiting their human trade. Authorities would turn a blind eye then. Now, as Europe and North Africa tighten their borders and close their ports creating drama on the high seas in a general clampdown on migration, this unlikely spot has become, effectively, Europe's new frontier. Arrivals into Italy from January to early June of this year were down by two-thirds compared to the same period last year, when 60,000 crossed over from North Africa.
Since November 2017, more than 8,000 West Africans, including 2,000 children, have been returned to Niger from Algeria. Another 900 refugees and asylum seekers from East Africa have been transferred from Libya, awaiting cumbersome and slow resettlement or family reunification processes to determine their future.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it is bearing the brunt of the 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' policies of richer countries
Hastily stitched-together agreements between one country to the next — European Union (EU)-Turkey, EU-Libya, France-Niger, Algeria-Niger — are making migration someone else's problem, pushing migrants from pillar to post, farther south. Children pay the highest price with little or no proper structures to keep them safe.
The pushbacks have meant the stakes are higher and the routes riskier.
In the flurry of a dust storm, in flesh-baking heat, we met a young Guinean furious for being dumped over the border from Algeria where he was scraping out a living on the streets doing odd jobs. Wildly gesticulating, he went on a tirade. His words were as wise as they were distressing: "The desert has become a cemetery for our African brothers and nobody cares."
The desert has become a cemetery for our African brothers and nobody cares.
He was among those returned from Algeria, left in a nowhere land of the desert with temperatures of 118 degrees Fahrenheit, miles from the Niger border, forced to walk until they could find transport and shelter. Many came from within Niger, the impoverished county of Kantche state in Zinder with its longheld reliance on income from begging.
Ironically, when the migrants are brought to Agadez onto a bone-dry open plain with a few threadbare tents, local children circle around with plastic begging bowls — begging from the returned beggars.
Too many fall through the cracks as they're bundled up and off in this vast migrant heartland
It's a motley bag — some could even classify as refugees. I met Liberians who fled their country during the Ebola crisis, Guineans fleeing hard times, Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram and other fleeing the torment and hardships of Libya. Three United Nations agencies — UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF — have stepped up the response in Niger yet too many fall through the cracks as they're bundled up and off in this vast migrant heartland. One young mother nursing her 2-week-old baby was embarrassed that she had not yet managed to shave the newborn's thick head of hair according to tradition.
"The enforcing of the antimigration law has changed the dynamics in the country. We're seeing a huge spike in unaccompanied children. Those involved are using routes where they cannot be tracked, and it's far, far more dangerous," says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Dan Rono. "It's a tough journey for an adult, so you can imagine for an 11-year old, it's almost impossible for that child."
We're seeing a huge spike in unaccompanied children. Those involved are using routes where they cannot be tracked, and it's far, far more dangerous.
In April alone, there was an increase of 14 percent over the previous month in people transiting through Niger. One-third are children, exhausted and traumatized. The true figure is likely to be even higher, as many children go undetected or hide.
Omar, a 14-year-old from Sierra Leone, was one of those hidden statistics. He's a gangly, awkward early teen in a Yankees cap, sleeveless T-shirt, baggy shorts and flip flops, pretty much all he owns. He is under the radar in a place they call the "Ghetto" outside Agadez, waiting for the chance to cross. He left home because he is father was not paying his school fees.
I have made my decision to go to Libya, or to go to Europe to have a good life.
"I have made my decision to go to Libya, or to go to Europe to have a good life," he says. "May God save and guide me, I will not go back home until I make it, to become a good boy so I can support the family I left behind. For now, if I stay home, I won't be serious, okay? I'll become a bad boy. I will smoke, drink... So, I don't want that life, okay? I don't want to become a bad boy. But if I go to Europe, I will continue my school. I will continue playing football again."
UNICEF studies have found that although most children on the move stay within Africa and have no desire to go to Europe, of those who say they do what to, like Omar, around one-third say it is for an education.
According to UNICEF estimates, some 120 children drowned at sea between January and May 2018
A former smuggler, Dan Ader, who's seen his lucrative business crumble into the desert dust since the clampdown, told us: "There are so many deaths because there are thousands of routes. Now if your GPS has a little glitch, you're finished! You will not find your way again."
According to UNICEF estimates, some 120 children drowned at sea between January and May. At least there are lifeguards at sea. No one patrols the vast and deadly sea of sand.
It doesn't stop them from trying.
Desperation and dreams turn young migrants into philosophers and poets. The scratchings on a prison cell and graffiti on the grim ghetto walls tells their stories scrawled in large charcoal letters: "Europe ou rien. Dieu est là!" Europe or bust. God is there.
"Il vaut mieux mourir en mer que de mourir devant sa mère — sans rien." It is better to die at sea than to die in front of your mother — with nothing.
It is better to die at sea than to die in front of your mother — with nothing.
Migration is as old as humanity itself here — a rite of passage into manhood for many, and simply a way of life in search of a better life. Closed ports and closed borders are not likely to stop this. Africa is the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. The North is aging. some say "Africa is sitting with its bags packed." The scrawling on the wall of the filthy ghetto in Agadez is a stark reminder of one of the reasons: "L'Afrique est riche mais ses enfants quittent à cause de mauvais gouvernements." Africa is rich, but its children are leaving because of bad governments.
And yet only some 15 percent of those on the move in Africa express any interest in going to Europe.
Managing migration is truly global. Governments must seize the moment to put the needs of children uprooted before national interests.
Now, as the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees are being finalized, the EU and other bodies really need to seize this moment to put the needs of children uprooted before national interests; commit to predictable cross-region action to keep children safe and families together and invest in countries like Niger and others in the Global South that take in far more refugees and migrants in a month than the Global North now does in an entire year.
For most, then, the true paradise lost is being uprooted from your home and your loved ones — especially for children alone. They look now to powerful member states, to the EU and to the African Union to put in place a proper migration system that doesn't dismiss them like the wind that carried them to foreign shores.
UNICEF is committed to reuniting families and supporting children on the move around the world. Please donate today to help UNICEF protect refugee and migrant children from violence, abuse and exploitation.
Sarah Crowe is a UNICEF Spokesperson on the Refugee and Migrant Crisis and Senior Communication Specialist. She recently visited Niger.
Top photo: In May 2018, unaccompanied children caught begging in Algeria wait in Zinder, Niger to be sent home to their families. © UNICEF/UN0209693/Gilbertson VII Photo