Authorities in Niger have recovered 92 bodies of migrants who died of thirst after the trucks they were travelling in broke down in a desolate no man's land at the feet of the Sahara desert, officials said today.
The dozens of people were being smuggled last month along a well-established trafficking route used to move contraband, including people, from Niger to neighbouring Algeria, said Col. Garba Makido, governor of the Nigerien province of Agadez, south of where the bodies were found.
Officials were only alerted to the incident when a lone woman managed to stumble out of the desert earlier this month. She was picked up by a passing car that took her to the city of Arlit, around 50 kilometres south of where the first of the two trucks broke down.
The next day, a father walking with his two young daughters also arrived. But his children perished of thirst just a few kilometres outside of Arlit, said Makido. A total of 21 people survived, most of whom made their way to towns at the Algerian border.
"This is a true tragedy," said Makido. "The prosecutor has opened an investigation and we plan to do everything we can to find the truck drivers."
First word of the incident came Monday when officials reported that 35 people died of thirst, but the death toll rose when more bodies were recovered from the desert.
The tract of land that runs across the continent just south of the vast Sahara Desert has for decades been the province of smugglers and criminals, including the local chapter of al-Qaeda.
Tens of thousands of West African immigrants attempting to reach Europe each year have tapped into this perilous route, after authorities cracked down on sea routes via the Atlantic Ocean.
They travel from countries across the region to the Nigerien city of Agadez, where they pay smugglers to ferry them across the ocean of sand in rickety trucks, braving one of the most austere landscapes on Earth for a chance at a better life.
The flow of migrants into Europe has gained prominence over the last few months after a number of vessels have sank. On Oct. 3, 365 people drowned after their ship capsized near Lampedusa, an Italian island close to North Africa.
Following the tragedy, EU officials set up a task force to improve the system of maritime patrols and address the migrant issue.
Leaders failed to agree on more funding for border patrol, however, and said they would discuss the task force's findings at a summit scheduled for December.