The bodies of 87 migrants who died of thirst attempting to cross the Sahara desert have been found in Niger. The group of mainly women and children were stranded after their vehicle broke down, leaving them to walk 12 miles in the scorching sun to reach a well.
„The bodies were decomposed, it was horrible,“‚ said Almoustapha Alhacen, one of the rescue workers on the scene. „We found them in various places within a radius of 20km, and 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.“
The group, who were from Niger, are believed to have begun their perilous journey across the desert in late September. They died in October, six miles from the border between Niger and Algeria, when one of their two vehicles broke down and the other 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 52 miles across the desert to Arlit in northern Niger, and 19 who reached the town of Tamaresset in southern Algeria only to be repatriated back to Niger.
„This is human trafficking, I’m afraid,“ said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Arlit, a uranium mining town about 50 miles from where the bodies were found. „They were probably heading to the Mediterranean to try to go to Europe, or else to Algeria to work.“
Rescue workers who found the bodies, which include 32 women and 48 children, have said the group may have included a party from an Islamic madrasa school, given the large number of children and an elderly man who appears to have been an Islamic teacher among the victims .
Authorities in Niger – a vast landlocked country that straddles the desert between north and sub-Saharan Africa – first learned of the tragedy two weeks ago when the bodies of a further 35 people, believed to be from the same group, were found.
The plight of migrants from Africa and the Middle East has been 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 (£1,900) to be taken across the desert from Niger to North Africa, arrive in Europe by sea each year, according to the United Nations.