24 Jul 19 07 May 21

Niger: “Imagine being dumped in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water”

Niger has been on Africa’s migration route for centuries, particularly the Agadez region. In recent years, travellers heading north have been joined by thousands of people moving south, either expelled from Algeria or returning from Libya. Far from stopping the flow of people, the recent criminalization of migration by both European and non-European governments has significantly increased the vulnerability of people on the move, whether they are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, traders or seasonal workers. Forced to avoid the usual routes, people are taking more dangerous ones – across the Ténéré desert and the Aïr Mountains – putting them at risk of exploitation and violence.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Niger’s Agadez region since August 2018. Project coordinator Aiva M. Noelsaint provides some answers about the humanitarian needs people are facing, MSF’s work and future plans.

Why is MSF working in Agadez?

Last year, MSF decided to set up a project in the region to help alleviate the suffering of both people on the move and vulnerable host communities. People trying to leave or who have recently returned – either voluntarily or forced – are often subject to multiple deprivations or to violence. At the same time, existing health facilities are overstretched and require additional support. This is why we have been working in Agadez since August 2018, doing our best to assist local people and migrants by distributing basic relief items and helping them get healthcare, alongside Niger’s Ministry of Public Health, with a focus on areas with a high concentration of people on the move.

What is MSF doing for people on the move and host communities?

People expelled from Algeria are either brought into Niger on official convoys or dropped near the border village of Assamaka, from where they have to walk around 15 km to the village centre. They are usually exhausted and have nothing but the clothes they stand up in. We give them high-energy biscuits, water, and essential items such as hygiene kits and blankets. We do a quick check to see if anyone requires immediate medical attention, and refer emergency cases to health facilities. We also offer mental health support to everyone, and we have built showers and latrines in the area.

Elsewhere, in other key areas of the migration routes across Agadez region, we help people access free-of-charge and quality medical services. These are available to everyone, including local communities. This includes providing basic healthcare, maternal healthcare and psychosocial support at existing facilities in Arlit, Tabelot, Séguédine and Aney, and through mobile clinics in transit locations such as Dirkou, Fasso, Amzigan, Lataye, Guidan Daka, Kori Kantana and La Dune. In Dirkou, our teams work in the guettos and maisons closes [where people engage in sex work]. We also provide lifesaving referrals to hospital for people needing specialised medical and surgical care as a result of accidental or violence-related trauma.

In the Agadez region, floods and outbreaks of diseases such as measles are a regular occurrence, so we follow the epidemiological situation and are ready to step in if needed – with vaccination campaigns and distributions of essential relief kits for people affected by epidemics or natural disasters. In August 2018 we provided basic relief items in Iferouane, Assamaka and Dabaga, following the floods that affected those areas, and last April we carried out a measles vaccination campaign in Arlit.

We are also exploring the possibility of launching search-and-rescue operations along the migration routes across the desert, to help those who become stranded for various reasons – because their vehicle has broken down or they have been abandoned there by people smugglers – and are at risk of death. We are developing this in collaboration with the community and other actors.

Evaluations are also underway in Tagharaba (also known as Tchibarakaten), a mining site between Algeria and Niger, some 500 km from Arlit, to assess the medical needs of migrants and other vulnerable groups, such as minors, who are working there.

Dirkou area, Agadez region. Dirkou is one of the locations across Agadez región where MSF is running mobile clinics to assist people on the move and vulnerable host communities.

Who are the people MSF is assisting?

People on the move are not a homogenous group: each person has different circumstances and different goals. In terms of nationality, most come from Niger and other African countries such as Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea Conakry, but there are also Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Bangladeshis (mostly expelled from Algeria or having left Libya) and people from elsewhere. They all have access to our services. Their motives also vary: some are fleeing war, insecurity or persecution in their countries of origin or residence; some are on the move for economic reasons, including poverty and seasonal trade. Often these motivations are intertwined.

What is common to them all is the risk they face on their journeys of abuse, exploitation, violence and death in the desert. A worrying proportion report having already gone through unspeakable ordeals before arriving in Niger.

Some are in Agadez voluntarily, on their way to another country, for example returning to their country of origin from Libya. Others are here looking for work such as that which can be found in mines. Still others, like those expelled from Algeria, have been forcibly brought to Niger, and are often suffering extreme fatigue, pain and infections. Our mental health teams have also treated people suffering from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment, including torture and rape.

The final destination of the people on the move varies, from Algeria to Morocco and further afield, including Europe. We are seeing mostly men among those entering Niger in one way or the other, but there are also children – accompanied by their parents or not – and women.

The women, whether they are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or living in Niger, can be especially vulnerable, particularly if pregnant. In April, a woman from Niger arrived at one of the health posts we support, bleeding profusely. Her life was in danger. Our team immediately organized an ambulance to take her to hospital. She ended up giving birth halfway across the desert, in the MSF vehicle, with the assistance of our medics. Both the woman and her baby survived and received the follow-up care they needed.

Which are people’s main humanitarian needs?

Imagine being dumped in the middle of nowhere with no food or water. You don’t understand the local language and have never been to Niger – or to any desert area. Imagine that before being dropped at the border you were held in a detention centre with no information. Imagine that you saw your relatives, friends or travel companions die on the journey – like the person who told us that 25 of his 30 travel companions had died after the truck that was transporting them broke down and nobody could help them in time. This kind of experience can leave people scarred for life, no matter how resilient they are.

On top of that, people on the move may spend days at a time unable to access food, water, a toilet, a shower or medical services. Financial constraints can also be troublesome, both in the short and medium term, and there are limited options to earn a living. People’s needs for protection and information remain largely unmet. And their need for shelter. And their need to make a living.  

MSF will continue to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people in the Agadez region, alongside the Ministry of Public Health. Mobilising more organisations is urgently needed to fill the critical gaps, ensure there are adequate referral systems and prevent more avoidable deaths. Migration is not a crime and should not be punished by neglect or through the implementation of policies that exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.”