Lost in the Desert

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Bella, 27, from a small village in northern Guinea, decided to try her luck getting to Europe. However, the boat she was on, sailing from Mauritania to Spain, was intercepted by Mauritanian security officials. Soon after, she and about 20 others were put on a bus to make a 15-hour journey to the border with Mali, forced to cross it and left there, in a desert region plagued by jihadist violence.

“They wanted to be sure that we went into Mali,” she said. “We were in the middle of the wilderness. There was nothing there.”

Human rights officials and observers say Bella’s story is the end result of anti-migrant programs paid for by the European Union: The bloc is knowingly financing Mauritanian, Moroccan, and Tunisian programs to halt migration to Europe that end up with those countries rounding up thousands of Black migrants and dumping them – without food, water or transportation – in the remote areas of the Saharan desert, often near the Libyan, Algerian and Malian borders but elsewhere as well.

“The reporting shows that EU member states and the European Commission don’t just know about the abandonments, but they also equip the security forces that commit them,” wrote German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, one of eight news organizations working on an investigation into such practices in collaboration with the non-profit Lighthouse Reports. “The Europeans have paid for the refurbishment of detention facilities, provided pickups and offroad vehicles, trained security forces and even patrolled together with them. In some places, according to an eyewitness, representatives from European security agencies have even received lists containing the names of the migrants that are to be abandoned.”

For more than a decade, millions of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have been trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum and economic opportunities in Europe.

Their journeys are often deadly. More than 5,000 people died, for example, traveling from North Africa to the coast of Spain this year between January and May, noted the Anadolu Agency, citing the Spanish non-governmental organization Frontline Defenders.

The EU has long been giving money to governments in North Africa such as Tunisia – and most recently Mauritania and Egypt – to detain and prevent the migrants from traveling further, partly to protect the migrants but mostly to reduce the political pressure that has been mounting on the continent from the opposition of many Europeans to more immigration. In recent years, the region has received more than $430 million.

European governments have also adopted new rules designed to disperse migrants among different countries, rather than concentrating them in border zones where the migrants first arrive in the bloc, added World Politics Review.

In theory, officials in those governments are supposed to adhere to international human rights laws. But often they don’t, wrote Lighthouse Reports, particularly when migrants hail from sub-Saharan Africa.

Cameroonian migrant François, 38, told reporters that Tunisian authorities caught him as he journeyed to Europe, put him and other migrants on a truck bound for the Algerian border, and then on arrival told him to cross it. But Algerian border guards fired shots at him so he and the others scattered into the desert.

“It was cold. We were soaked; all our clothes were wet,” he said. “No one had a sweater or a coat. We were looking for two things: to find food, and follow the first rays of the sun to warm up.”

Nine days later, he was delirious as he and the small group stumbled into an olive grove and collapsed, and a kind farmer came to their rescue.

European leaders have denied the investigation’s conclusions, saying the funds are to help development in those countries and to shore up borders. Migrant advocates corroborated the allegations, however.

“The fact is European states do not want to be the ones to have dirty hands – they do not want to be considered responsible for the violation of human rights,” French human rights expert Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainchen told the Washington Post. “So they are subcontracting these violations to third states. But I think, really, according to international law, they are responsible.”

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