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Photo of coffins of victims of a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

Coffins of victims of a failed attempt to migrate across the Mediterranean.

Photograph by Alberto Pizzoli, AFP/Getty

Sahara_deaths.jpg

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published November 4, 2013

Last week, a gruesome discovery was made in the Sahara: the decomposed corpses of 52 children, part of a group of 113 migrants from Niger who were being transported by human traffickers toward Algeria and the glittering El Dorado of their dreams, Europe.

Their journey began on September 26 in the remote mining town of Arlit, in the north of Niger, which was recently ranked by the Save the Children charity as the worst place to be a mother on Earth. As they rattled across the desert in two ramshackle trucks, toward the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, these mothers dreamed of a better life for their children. But only 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Arlit, the first of the two vehicles broke down. The other vehicle turned back to Arlit to get a spare part after unloading its human cargo in the desert. It, too, soon broke down.

The children stayed close to their mothers, doing their best to shelter from the burning sun. At this time of year, temperatures in the Sahara reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). It was cooler at night. But darkness also brought the fear of wild animals. The next day, this huddle of desperate humanity again waited for the drivers to return with the spare parts. But they did not come. Nor the next day. Nor the next. Water was running low. So, on the fifth day, the group set out on foot to find a well. But before they could reach it, most of them had succumbed to starvation and thirst. Only 21 survived, among them two smugglers, who managed to get back to Arlit and are now in jail. Some of the children were found clinging to their mothers. Others died alone, or were eaten by jackals. They were only a few miles from the well.

A Migration in the Shadows

Their tragic deaths are a tiny symptom of one of the greatest—and least reported—migrations in human history: tens of thousands of economic migrants and refugees, mostly from Africa but also from the Middle East, fleeing poverty and war in their own countries for a better life in Europe. Only a few weeks after the convoy set off in Niger, 300 migrants from Eritrea, on the other side of Africa, died when their rickety boat sunk near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily. A week later, 30 more Africans died when a boat packed with 250 immigrants sunk off the coast of Malta. And for every ten immigrants who die, there are thousands more willing to risk their lives. John Ging, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimates that 80,000 people per year make the journey across the Sahara.

Numbers and routes fluctuate with war and politics. In 2011, 61,000 people fled the ruins of Gaddafi's Libya in search of a new life on the other side of the Mediterranean. Now, boats are arriving from Syria. More than 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy alone this year. A staggering 20,000 others are estimated to have died at sea trying to reach Europe in the last two decades, their screams unheard, their stories untold.

For the people of Europe, the bloated corpses washing up on their shores and the grim infrastructure of the camps in their cities and towns, where survivors are detained and processed, has provoked much hand-wringing but little action. The Italian prime minister called the recent deaths "a European drama," while failing to mention that most of the economic migrants clamoring to get into his country are migrants from Italy's former colonies, like Somalia, Libya, or Eritrea. Hardliners in defense and security want to roll out something called Eurosur, a pan-European border security system, which would use advanced technologies and greater surveillance to make the Mediterranean as immigrant friendly as the Rio Grande.

The Challenge for Europe and Africa

Europe certainly needs to do more. Its asylum policies are a mess. There is little in the way of coordinated strategy or burden sharing. But the continent is already coping with an even bigger flow of migrants, who arrive legally, usually by air, then apply for asylum. And with 26 million unemployed, the essential generosity and compassion of some Europeans is being choked by less generous responses, as the rise of far right, anti-immigrant parties in France and Greece shows.

Ultimately, this is a global crisis requiring a global solution. It can hardly be right, for instance, that in 2011, Malta, which is a tenth the size of Rhode Island, admitted almost three times more refugees (6,952) than Japan (2,649). The distant root of the problem must also be tackled. It is not Europe's fault that tens of thousands of Eritreans are risking their lives every year to flee their country. The blame lies with Isaias Afewerki, the president, who has turned this tiny East African nation into a totalitarian state that some observers have compared to North Korea.

Only when poverty, corruption, and bad governance have been stamped out across the continent, and when the traffickers in human misery have been hunted down and prosecuted, will Africans want to stay at home rather than risk their lives in perilous journeys across the desert and sea in search of a better life.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

15 comments
Cary R Burke
Cary R Burke

A sad situation which requires major undertaking.....

Stephen Kimber
Stephen Kimber

This tragedy unfolds almost as a linear consequence of the historical realities of a 'haves and have nots' world. It is a continuing narrative of the economic hegemony of industrial capitalism and the legacy of Europe's and later the US's imperial dominance of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. This dominance is of course on-going. As Worrall notes - Europe needs to do more. So, I'd add, does the rest of the world. Africa is essentially in a mess; a mess which is in a large part of our making.

Daryl Johanssen
Daryl Johanssen

Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been working in Africa herself for quite some time, in an attempt to educate the WOMEN that by being pregnant continuously, their plight is made much worse.

Let us hope her hard work will pay off -  for the sake of the innocent babies and children suffering so horrendously.

Daryl Johanssen
Daryl Johanssen

As Predicted By Scientists.......

"So much of the world is ignorant and poor and/or bound by myth/religious dogma, that even with the best intentions, we are stuck with the consequences of that....lots of babies continuing the cycle of ignorance and poverty. If children have not been raised to understand and care about the consequences of having so many children, and the support structures don't exist to reinforce the point, you can't change that.  We don't have the will or resources to change that, ever.

The fact is that the population will keep going until the damage to the environment tips so far as to kill billions upon billions of us, if not all.  Whole populations will die out, and MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS WILL MIGRATE and haves/versus have-nots WILL FIGHT and many developed societies will collapse under the strain.  Then eventually a much smaller population will be left in the mess that is all that remains of a once friendly ecosystem to pick up the pieces."

Scientific American, Population and Sustainability, 2011

Imogen Graham
Imogen Graham

Climate change too as the Sahara creeps further south is going to add to the effects of poverty and bad governance. Individual countries outside of Africa cannot cope with such an enormous crisis on their own. Isn't this where a stronger United Nations should be making this terrible problem a top priority?

murray ngoima
murray ngoima

To begin with, 'We are ALL an African People" as the map, that Heather MacAdam's comment links us to, reveals. The horror and tragedy recounted in "Fatal Consequences" is really our own, regardless who we imagine ourselves to be and where we live--these are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and our children who are dying, "their screams unheard, their stories untold." Whatever the reasons--political, economic, climatic, social or personal--that drive any of us to "emmigrate"/"immigrate," it is the degree of humanity, empathy, or lack of it, that resides in the rest of us that determines our response. We can ascribe blame to circumstances in the present or to events in the past, but blame however accurately placed does not relieve the pain that one child suffers. Ascribing blame and building walls both defer our recognition of complicity and culpability. The gift of living at this time on this planet is that we possess, as a species, the ability to prevent this suffering.  

jerr sins
jerr sins

The first step for Europe should be to enact a broad and comprehensive plan to provide birth control to places where the migrants come. That would put less pressure on the potential immigrant parents for their existing childrens' welfare as there would be fewer children to care for. The world's overwhelming problems all stem from overpopulation.

David Graham
David Graham

Indeed it is a shocking state of affairs. And yes,  Europe should coordinate its position. But where are the institutions than can stamp out  poverty, corruption, and bad governance where they occur? We are still mainly a planet of independent nation states: there is no consensus yet on how to change bad governance. And anyway what country welcomes poor immigrants? Europe is probably as good as it gets.

Heather Macadam
Heather Macadam

I am relieved to hear a perspective that addresses governments' responsibility to their people in making a life for their people that does not demand an exodus for survival. I am took a look at the migration map, which addresses our historic pattern of migration and am curious about the connections that could be made between this current migration and those of our ancestors.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0603/feature2/images/mp_download.2.pdf

Jean B.
Jean B.

@Daryl Johanssen Ok...you are probably right, though the article did not present over-population as a reason for migration.  It blamed the leadership back in the homeland where these people would prefer to stay.

Simon Worrall
Simon Worrall

@jerr sins thanks for the comment, it's an interesting idea, though hard to institute from Europe?

Simon Worrall
Simon Worrall

@David Graham Thanks for your comment - the institutions needed to be created in situ, i think, by Africans themselves.

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