Migrant dreams turn into Sahara sex work

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Media caption,

Thomas Fessy meets some of the migrants in Agadez trying to make it to Europe

Thousands of African migrants are stuck in the Nigerien town of Agadez - the gateway to the Sahara - as they battle to fulfil their dream of reaching Europe. The BBC's Thomas Fessy met some of them during a visit to the town.

This is nothing like what Vivienne expected.

"I thought I would find a job here," she says.

"I came here because of the conditions I found myself in Nigeria. I had just finished my secondary school but my Dad doesn't have money for me to study. I just want to continue north, make money and make my family proud."

Vivienne, who declined to give her surname, says she is 23. She looks younger but it is impossible to verify her age.

Last month, she took a bus ride of about 240km (150 miles) from Kano, the main city in northern Nigeria, to Zinder, Niger's second city, and from there another bus to Agadez, a town about 370km away.

Dusty alleyways

She arrived in Agadez with big dreams. Instead, desperate to reach Europe, she is now selling herself to men.

"I've searched. There is no job," she laments, rolling her mobile phone between her hands.

Image caption,
Smugglers make a fortune out of migrants
Image caption,
The market attracts many people to Agadez
Image caption,
Vivienne's home does not even have doors

I have met her in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Agadez. She shares two dusty rooms with 10 other Nigerian young girls.

One of the rooms does not have a door. Nor does the other, but there is a curtain hanging, at least.

The place is littered with open condom packets, used ones were thrown onto a pile of trash that the women burn every now and then just a couple of metres away from their doorstep.

"I thought I could do the cleaning at somebody's house and that they would pay me. But there are no jobs here," Vivienne says.

"Then I met these Nigerian friends and they told me that this was how they coped here. So, I started to work for men."

"I am not happy with the job I am doing, but it's the only way I can survive."

The old part of town is a maze of narrow streets and dusty alleyways.

All houses have been built with mud-bricks, in a square or rectangular-like shape and they look as though they are just coming out of the earth.

Agadez is an obvious market place for communities surrounded by nothing else but the desert.

But it is a place of secrecy, the gateway to the Sahara and the home to all kinds of smugglers.

For African migrants, their dream - the promise of a better life - starts here.

Money is what they hope to find in Europe, but it is what they need now.

Image source, Marina Militare
Image caption,
Some migrants make it to sea after crossing the desert
Image source, Marina Militare
Image caption,
Many have to be rescued because their boats capsize or break down

Just around the corner from the main market, a group of West African migrants is queuing outside a bank.

Meeting smugglers

There are more than 30 of them. None of them want to give their name.

"We are here to receive money for survival," one says.

"Some of us did some work back home and still have a bit of money in a bank account so it's time to withdraw it," he explains.

"Others hope that their family has sent something to help them."

He came from Senegal in the past two weeks but he does not know when he will be able to continue his journey north.

"I need the money first. So I might have to work for one, three or six months and then go."

On the other side of the roundabout, some of the migrants who were queuing at the bank earlier on are now buying jerry cans which they will fill with water to survive the desert ride.

Those who will drive them and smuggle them into Libya are traffickers from the region.

Either from Libya or Niger, they are from the Toubous ethnic group that enjoyed recognition in Libya under Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Ex-Libyan leader Col Muammar Gadaffi was liked by many sub-Saharan Africans

However, like sub-Saharan Africans, the Toubous say they are now discriminated against by the majority Arabs in Libya, where lawlessness prevails.

I met a group of smugglers, who accepted to talk on condition of anonymity.

In the migration business, people are just another commodity. The man, who speaks to me in Arabic, is smuggling up to 300 people a month.

Rocky desert

"We charge $500 (£295) for the ride all the way into Libya, but you need to count another $300 so we can bribe the police at all checkpoints," he says.

"We can give the migrants credit, if they need it, but that means they will end up paying double on arrival."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Vivienne left the Nigerian city of Kano with the hope of reaching Spain

Migrants are usually crammed into the back of pick-up trucks, between 25 and 35 of them per vehicle.

Two brand-new Toyota Hilux, just washed, were parked outside the house, where I met the smugglers.

"We're now equipped with GPS and Thurayas [satellite phones], so it's easier than it used to be, in case we get stuck."

But such equipment does not prevent serious incidents from happening.

Hidden behind a black turban and sunglasses, cigarette in hand, the smuggler recalls a deadly ride from last year.

"One of the pick-ups tumbled down a sand dune, six died," he says.

"They were three Gambians, two Nigeriens and a Cameroonian."

Leaving Agadez opens the way to a rocky desert, where the long road through the Sahara begins.


But the track will soon disappear under the heavy sand dunes for what is probably the most extreme journey that African migrants will ever undertake.

One either makes it or does not, but there is no going back.

The blazing sun is punishing, and reaching Libya will offer no respite.

Back in Agadez, another group of West African migrants are waiting to return home at the Red Cross transit centre.

Most of them are from The Gambia, but others are from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea.

A few dozen Senegalese had also arrived back from Libya the week before but the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental agency, had already arranged for them to be repatriated.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Agadez lies on the edge of the Sahara desert

Their eyes dropping in despair, they tell brutal stories of being kidnapped by militiamen, sold to the police and thrown in jail for up to six months.

They were beaten and starved, and eventually deported. They have failed in their effort to migrate to Europe.

"After spending this amount of money to get to Libya, work there, they take all your belongings, even your clothes. We go back home with nothing. That's absolutely sad. More than the word sad, in fact," Lalo Jaiteh, a 44-year-old Gambian, says.

Mr Jaiteh's journey across the desert involved going without water or food for two days.

"Some were even lying, crying that they will not see their parents again. One was lying beside me telling me: 'my brother, that's the end of it, I'm sorry I won't see my mum again' - I said: 'No. Don't cry. God is so kind. Certainly we will make it'," he says.

A younger man, Ousmane, 26, was jailed in two different prisons while in Libya; three months each time.

He had tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea with others but the boat's engine broke down.

They drifted away until Italian coastguards rescued them and brought them back to Libya.

Mr Jaiteh says he did not believe such stories before he found himself "in the centre of it."

"When I am finally home, those who want to leave will not believe me either because they want to go so badly."

The risks involved in this grim journey north are no deterrent and thousands of African migrants, without jobs or prospects in their countries, will continue to transit in Agadez each year.

They include Vivienne. As her foot brushes the remains of a red condom packet covered in dust, she explains she cannot return home now because her family would not allow her back if they came to know what she was doing in Agadez.

I ask her where in Europe would she like to go.

"I want to go to Spain because my friend told me it was nice," she answers.

"I want to study to be a nurse. That's my dream."

Migration routes across the Sahara desert

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