“Returning home isn’t an option”
COVID-19 has deepened the crisis facing unaccompanied young people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mounting attacks on civilians. Natural disasters. Health emergencies. Poverty. The issues prompting young people and their families to flee crisis-ridden areas of sub-Saharan Africa are numerous. But so are the challenges they face when they do: perilous journeys marked by the threat of detention, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and discrimination.
As borders in the region remain closed in an effort to contain COVID-19, children on the move through Niger have been left at even greater risk of harm, caught between the homes they have fled and an uncertain future.
Sharing a border with Algeria, Chad, Libya and Mali, the Agadez region of Niger is a transit hub for migrants and refugees fleeing volatile security and economic situations in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The number of young people passing through Agadez was already on the rise, but the threat of coronavirus in the region has pushed it even higher. By April 2020, more than 7,400 talibé children – children who attend Koranic schools – were sent back to Niger from Nigeria following the closure of Koranic schools due to COVID-19. During the same period, 375 migrant children were repatriated from Libya and Algeria.
Ibrahim and Mohamed, both 17 years old, travelled from their home country of the Gambia, through Senegal and Mali, to the Agadez region. On the way, they were robbed, arrested and tortured. “Returning home isn’t an option,” Ibrahim says. They now wait in Agadez, hoping to be smuggled to Libya or Algeria – and onwards to Europe.
For many migrants trying to flee sub-Saharan Africa, all roads lead through Agadez. “Tourists have stopped coming [here],” says Mohamed, the guardian of the Old Mosque of Agadez. “The migration business is the alternative.”
Once the trade capital of West Africa, Agadez today is “the gateway to the Sahara Desert”, a hub for smugglers and human traffickers who prey on unaccompanied children and young people desperate for food, shelter and security. Many of these children have fled instability and uncertainty in countries like Algeria and Libya, only to face dehydration and starvation, extortion, torture, sexual violence, exploitation and forced labour along their journeys.
Travelling on dusty roads and in scorching heat, many en route to Europe don’t make it off the continent, getting as far as Libya before being returned to Agadez.
Groups of women and children fleeing the harsh economic conditions in the Zinder region of Niger travel through Agadez to Algeria. Lacking food, water and other essentials, children take to the streets, begging passers-by for food for themselves and their families. No longer in school, these children are at significantly heightened risk of exploitation.
Zeinabou (left), and her sister Haua (right), 17, left their family behind when they travelled to Algeria. But after months of living on the streets and sheltering in cramped conditions with other migrants, they were repatriated in Agadez, where Haua gave birth to a son.
Haua and Zeinabou’s father, Issa, explains he had no choice but to send them to Algeria in search of a better life. “I fell sick. The drought hit the harvest on the farm…If we had enough to cover the family’s basic expenses and my medicines, I would never have decided to send my daughters away,” he says. “I lost two of my children during the famine of 2005. I don’t want that to happen again.”
Abdul* is seeking asylum in Agadez after fleeing the conflict in Darfur with a group of friends in 2018. They were hoping to make it to Europe but were abducted by armed men in Libya. “They killed one of my friends and took the rest of us to a house with fields and forced us to work. It was hell,” Abdul says. He has given up on trying to reach Europe.
Halima* also fled the conflict in Darfur, hoping to start a new life. After arriving in Libya she was raped. Three years on, she is in Agadez, raising a son who her husband rejects. “I love my son,” she says. “But I never want him to know that his real father raped me.”
Amina*, 17, from Darfur, dreams of going back to school. She fled Chad after the refugee camp where she and her family lived was attacked by gunmen. “They destroyed everything. I saw them rape young girls. So, my family left,” she says. “We went to Libya where we worked for four years. When the conflict started again, we fled to Niger.”
Hassane says he has thought about leaving Niger to try to find work. But family separation and possible detention are deeply traumatic experiences for children. So, for now, Hassane is staying with his family in Agadez, where he makes jewellery.
“The youth of our city are going into exile, putting their lives at risk. They belong here, at school,” says Monsieur Garba, the mayor of the town of Tanout, which connects the migrant routes between the Zinder and Agadez regions.
“My place is in school,” agrees Rakia, 14, (right). She says that improving her reading and writing skills will help her in the future, and that the idea of “the trip” scares her.
Adia*, 9, is one of the more than 60,000 refugees who fled Nigeria for Niger to escape an upsurge of violence in 2019. “One day, bandits came to my village in Nigeria,” Adia says. “They killed my neighbour in front of my eyes. They told me that if I cried, they would kill me, too.” She says that locals in Niger have been kind. “They gave us a place to live. Now, I have new good friends in the village.”
An early morning sandstorm adds to an already arduous morning for one boy in Maradi, Niger, as he collects water for his family and the Nigerian refugees they are hosting.
Health workers check the temperature of a child at a quarantine site where migrants are monitored for symptoms of COVID-19. In April 2020, more than 1,400 Nigerien migrants, many of them children, returned home after a traumatic journey to Burkina Faso marked by violence.
Mariama (left) travelled to Burkina Faso with her husband while she was three months pregnant. “I had no choice. In Niger, we don’t have the means to cover the whole family’s expenses,” she says. “That’s why we travel abroad despite [my] problems with my pregnancy…to find work so we can come back to Niger with some savings.”
Some Nigerien migrants used to make money by travelling to gold mines in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where they would cook for workers there. But such jobs were cut short this year by violent clashes and the spread of COVID-19 in the region. Migrants returned to Niger empty-handed.
*Name changed to protect identity.
UNICEF is working to meet the needs of children on the move with family tracing and reunification, temporary care for unaccompanied children, and psychosocial support. UNICEF is also working with partners to keep children learning and ensure they benefit from basic social services. In 2019, UNICEF established four One Stop Social Welfare Services and a transit center. Read more about UNICEF’s work in Niger here.