ASSAMAKA, Niger — From this isolated frontier post deep in the sands of the Sahara, the expelled migrants can be seen coming over the horizon by the hundreds. They look like specks in the distance, trudging miserably across some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain in the blistering sun.
They are the ones who made it out alive.
Here in the desert, Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 people in the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children, stranding them without food or water and forcing them to walk, sometimes at gunpoint, under temperatures of up to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).
In Niger, where the majority head, the lucky ones limp across a desolate 15-kilometer (9-mile) no man’s land to Assamaka, less a town than a collection of unsteady buildings sinking into drifts of sand. Others, disoriented and dehydrated, wander for days before a U.N. rescue squad can find them. Untold numbers perish along the way; nearly all the more than two dozen survivors interviewed by The Associated Press told of people in their groups who simply could not go on and vanished into the Sahara.
“Women were lying dead, men….. Other people got missing in the desert because they didn’t know the way,” said Janet Kamara, who was pregnant at the time. “Everybody was just on their own.”
Her body still aches from the dead baby she gave birth to during the trek and left behind in the Sahara, buried in a shallow grave in the molten sand. Blood streaked her legs for days afterward, and weeks later, her ankles are still swollen. Now in Arlit, Niger, she is reeling from the time she spent in what she calls “the wilderness,” sleeping in the sand.
Quietly, in a voice almost devoid of feeling, she recalled at least two nights in the open before her group was finally rescued, but said she lost track of time.
“I lost my son, my child,” said Kamara, a Liberian who ran her own home business selling drinks and food in Algeria and was expelled in May.
Another woman in her early twenties, who was expelled at the same time, also went into labor, she said. That baby didn’t make it either.
Algeria’s mass expulsions have picked up since October 2017, as the European Union renewed pressure on North African countries to head off migrants going north to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or the barrier fences with Spain. These migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa — Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and more — are part of the mass migration toward Europe, some fleeing violence, others just hoping to make a living.
A European Union spokesperson said the EU was aware of what Algeria was doing, but that “sovereign countries” can expel migrants as long as they comply with international law. Unlike Niger, Algeria takes none of the EU money intended to help with the migration crisis, although it did receive $111.3 million in aid from Europe between 2014 and 2017.
Algeria provides no figures for the expulsions. But the number of people crossing on foot to Niger has been rising steadily since the International Organization for Migration started counting in May 2017, when 135 people were dropped at the crossing, to as high as 2,888 in April 2018. In all, according to the IOM, a total of 11,276 men, women and children survived the march.
At least another 2,500 were forced on a similar trek this year through the Sahara into neighboring Mali, with an unknown number succumbing along the way.
The migrants the AP talked to described being rounded up hundreds at a time, crammed into open trucks headed southward for six to eight hours to what is known as Point Zero, then dropped in the desert and pointed in the direction of Niger. They are told to walk, sometimes at gunpoint. In early June, 217 men, women and children were dropped well before reaching Point Zero, fully 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the nearest source of water, according to the IOM.
Within seconds of setting foot on the sand, the heat pierces even the thickest shoes. Sweat dries upon the first touch of air, providing little relief from the beating sun overhead. Each inhalation is like breathing in an oven.
But there is no turning back.
“There were people who couldn’t take it. They sat down and we left them. They were suffering too much,” said Aliou Kande, an 18-year-old from Senegal.
Kande said nearly a dozen people simply gave up, collapsing in the sand. His group of 1,000 got lost and wandered from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., he said. He never saw the missing people again. The word he returned to, over and over, was “suffering.”
Kande said the Algerian police stole everything he had earned when he was first detained — 40,000 dinars ($340) and a Samsung cellphone.
“They tossed us into the desert, without our telephones, without money. I couldn’t even describe it to you,” he said, still livid at the memory.
The migrants’ accounts are confirmed by multiple videos collected by the AP over months, which show hundreds of people stumbling away from lines of trucks and buses, spreading wider and wider through the desert. Two migrants told the AP gendarmes fired on the groups to force them to walk, and multiple videos seen by the AP showed armed, uniformed men standing guard near the trucks.
“They bring you to the end of Algeria, to the end in the middle of the desert, and they show you that this is Niger,” said Tamba Dennis, another Liberian who was in Algeria on an expired work visa. “If you can’t bring water, some people die on the road.” He said not everyone in his group made it, but couldn’t say how many fell behind.
Ju Dennis, another Liberian who is not related to Tamba, filmed his deportation with a cellphone he kept hidden on his body. It shows people crammed on the floor of an open truck, vainly trying to shade their bodies from the sun and hide from the gendarmes. He narrated every step of the way in a hushed voice.
Even as he filmed, Ju Dennis knew what he wanted to tell the world what was happening.
“You’re facing deportation in Algeria — there is no mercy,” he said. “I want to expose them now…We are here, and we saw what they did. And we got proof.”
Algerian authorities refused to comment on the allegations raised by the AP. Algeria has denied criticism from the IOM and other organizations that it is committing human rights abuses by abandoning migrants in the desert, calling the allegations a “malicious campaign” intended to inflame neighboring countries.
Along with the migrants who make their way from Algeria to Niger on foot, thousands more Nigerien migrants are expelled directly home in convoys of trucks and buses. That’s because of a 2015 agreement between Niger and Algeria to deal with Nigeriens living illegally in their neighbor to the north.