UN agency rescues 600 migrants in Sahara, 51 missing, presumed dead

UN agency rescues 600 migrants in Sahara, 51 missing, presumed dead
The International Organization for Migration has launched a new initiative aimed at rescuing migrants as they traverse the harsh desert terrain of central North Africa, aimed at assisting highly endangered people struggling to reach the Libyan coast en route to Europe.

“We were in the desert for 10 days. After five days, the driver abandoned us. He left with all of our belongings, saying he was going to pick us up in a couple of hours, but he never did,” Adaora, 22, from Nigeria told the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is the UN’s migration agency.

On Sunday, a group of 24 migrants from Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire alerted authorities that they were stranded in the desert of central Niger, with one dying a short time later.

They were originally part of a group of 75 migrants traveling north who were abandoned by smugglers.

Adaora left Nigeria with two close female friends, who both died in the desert. “They were too weak to keep going... We buried a few, but there were just too many to bury and we didn’t have the strength to do it,” Adaora said.

Authorities searched for the remaining 51 migrants but search and rescue efforts were hampered by a sandstorm. The search resumed once the storm had subsided but the migrants are now presumed dead and authorities are yet to encounter their bodies, the IOM said in a statement.

Over 600 people have been saved in the new IOM-run desert search and rescue operation, which began in April 2017. The agency's efforts are funded by the European Union Trust Fund and the government of The Netherlands.

The year-long “Migrants Rescue and Assistance in Agadez Region” (MIRAA) aims to protect migrants in hard-to-reach places.

“We are enhancing our capacity to assist vulnerable migrants stranded in Northern Agadez, towards the Niger-Libya border,” Giuseppe Loprete, IOM Niger Chief of Mission said.

“Saving lives in the desert is becoming more urgent than ever. Since the beginning of the year we have been receiving frequent calls to rescue victims who embark on this route‎,” Loprete adds.

For comparison, migrant rescue NGOs operating in the Mediterranean rescued almost 8,000 people between Saturday and Monday last.