AGADEZ: “We are traumatized, exhausted, and we still have no glimmer of hope,” says Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee slumped on a mat at a UN transit center in Agadez, Niger’s renowned “gateway to the Sahara.”
“We’ve fallen into the infernal trap of the desert,” a fellow Sudanese concludes numbly.
They are among hundreds of Sudanese who fled violence in Darfur, headed to Libya where many suffered atrocities and finally, in desperation, struggled through the scorched wastes to Agadez.
A crossroads where traders and adventurers have mingled since ancient times, Agadez has seen a steady influx of these unfortunates in recent months.
Swept by warfare since Muammar Qaddafi’s ousting in 2011, Libya with its enticing Mediterranean coast, has become a prime destination for African migrants trying to reach Europe.
But it is also dangerous, with many migrants and refugees enduring enslavement, kidnapping, extortion and violence.
“In Libya, we lived in hell,” a 31-year-old Sudanese man told AFP.
“Some of us were detained in inhuman conditions, others were tortured, robbed, taken hostage and freed for a ransom, so we fled to Niger.”
Crammed on trucks
All those who made it to Agadez were in distress, including women and children crammed on to trucks precariously laden with goods, according to local charities.
“We fled torture, rape and genocide in Darfur to go to Libya in search of a better life,” one refugee told UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi in a recent visit to Agadez.
Since 2003, Darfur has been gripped by a brutal conflict between rebel movements and Khartoum-backed militias. By 2010, UN estimates suggested some 300,000 people had died with another three million forced into refugee camps.
Although their route may have been circuitous, a handful of these refugees now appear to have found safety in Agadez, some 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) west of Darfur.
But their struggle is far from over.
“We get help in Niger, but it isn’t enough and we suffer greatly,” a young boy of barely 15 explained.
“Some have places to stay, but many sleep on the street because of our large numbers.”
Today, many Sudanese women and children are lodged in a large villa in the center of Agadez where they are fed and cared for by UNHCR.
The young men, many of them teenagers, shelter on the outskirts of town where they sleep rough in hangars of corrugated iron but at least have running water.
The unluckiest ones live on the street, at the mercy of savage sandstorms that whip across the city.
UNHCR puts the number of Sudanese asylum seekers in Agadez at 1,300, while local authorities give a higher figure of almost 2,000.
“Ten percent of these Sudanese refugees were in camps in Chad, but cuts in aid drove them into Libya before they got stuck in Agadez,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
“For several months, Niger’s authorities did not want these people to have access to asylum procedures, but an agreement was found,” he told AFP.
“There may be some who need asylum, (but) there will be no resettlement for them” in European countries, the UNHCR chief cautioned after talks with Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou.
But he said the agency would continue to support and shelter those in Agadez, while stressing the importance of the international community “stepping up support” to help Niger with refugees elsewhere in the country.
Niger, a largely desert country which is a major exporter of uranium, and — since 2011 — oil, remains one of Africa’s poorest countries with few resources for the more than 300,000 refugees and displaced people on its territory.
Some 108,000 people from Nigeria alone have crossed the border to escape the cruelty of the armed jihadists of Boko Haram.
However, the prolonged presence of needy foreigners fuels tensions with the local population, which is already suffering from economic hardship, frequent water shortages and power cuts.
“They attack our women and rob them,” said one motorcycle taxi driver, expressing concerns about safety that are also held by the town’s mayor, Rhissa Feltou.
“This cohabitation is not going well,” said Feltou, pointing the finger at “fiery young people who don’t respect any laws,” some of whom “have even fought in Libya and Sudan.”
Explosion of violence
He says their presence is piling pressure on limited health and sanitation resources in this town of 145,000 people which already takes in “at least 500 West Africans a month” who are expelled from Algeria.
To head off any explosion of violence between residents and the refugees, UNHCR plans to move its charges far from the city.
Feltou blames the UN agency for the tensions in his town, accusing it of raising hopes too high.
“UNHCR has publicly said it can protect all asylum seekers, all those who are persecuted at home. Then social networks pass on the word and overnight we are faced with a huge influx of these people,” he railed.
The centers are “completely overwhelmed,” he said. “And they keep arriving.”