ASSAMAKA: A lengthy line of people strolling along the flat desert in northern Niger appears in silhouette.
The fast walkers are in front. The weakest link is in the back.
Every week, hundreds of refugees from Algeria arrive in Assamaka, the first settlement on the Niger border.
More than 4,500 have washed ashore in this tiny windswept corner of the Sahara, mostly Malians, Guineans, and Ivorians, but also Syrians and Bangladeshis.
They marched through 15 kilometers of wilderness just to encounter a new purgatory.
The International Organization for Migration’s transit center, which only handles about a third of all arrivals, is overwhelmed.
“When we arrived, we were told by the IOM that we were not recognized as migrants, so we had to pay for our own transportation back home,” said Abdoul Karim Bambara of the Ivory Coast.
Assamaka’s water tanks are practically empty, food rations are insufficient, and shade from the scorching sun is scarce.
Thousands seek shade beneath buildings or under tarpaulins in temperatures as high as 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).
The migrants claim that they were robbed of their belongings in Algeria, where they wanted to start a new life in Europe.
They cannot afford to travel home or even call relatives.
They are stranded in an open jail in the desert for months at a time.
They include intelligent and educated individuals such as doctors, students, and traders.
Individual characteristics are forgotten as an angry mass of needy individuals gathers, pushing and shoving in visceral desperation, around the barbed-wire walls of the IOM enclosure.
“We’ve become like cattle,” Herman, also from Ivory Coast, remarked.
Many of the migrants are physically unwell, with scabies or infected wounds. Everyone is starving.
“Did you see that?” one man asked, pointing to a pile of fly-infested sticky rice. “Do you want to eat that?” We’re becoming sick as a result of that.”
Two groups of hungry guys are throwing stones at each other in a cloud of dust over to the side.
Fights are commonplace. A Cameroonian’s death sparked a riot that was put down with tear gas just days before. Protesters ransacked the IOM headquarters.
“We’ve all been traumatized. People are losing control, they are losing their brains, and there is nothing here. “People are dying,” shouted Sierra Leonean Aboubacar Cherif Cisse.
“If there was enough food, people would not fight, but since there isn’t any, what can they do?” If they don’t have anything, they’ll fight one other just to survive,” said Mohamed Mambu, who represents Sierra Leoneans at another transit center 200 kilometers away in Arlit.
The migratory situation has overwhelmed Assamaka’s 1,500 residents.
“They’re everywhere in the village, near the health center, by the walls,” said Francois Ibrahim of Alarme Phone Sahara, an NGO that assists migrants stranded in the desert.
According to Ibrahim, migrants take animals from neighbors and slaughter them for sustenance.
According to the French charity Doctors Without Borders, the number of migrants pushed into Niger has been increasing since the beginning of the year, creating a “unprecedented situation.”
Agadez, Niger’s regional capital 350 kilometers from Assamaka, offers a third transportation center, but all three are overcrowded.
Because the highways leading south are under attack by armed Islamist groups, people must be transported out on commercial flights for their protection.
“Flights are frequently cancelled… Yet people are expelled from Algeria every week,” said Ousmane Atair, manager at the Arlit center.
Migrants are transported by road in convoys organized by IOM subcontractors from Assamaka to Arlit and finally to Agadez.
The region appears to be paying for its relative stability.
“The road from Assamaka to Arlit is the best protected, which is why the migration flow heads this way,” Arlit mayor Abdourahamane Maouli explained.
With global demand for humanitarian aid on the rise, the EU, eager to keep migrants at bay, has become the region’s primary financial supporter of the IOM.
“The IOM plays a critical role in EU states’ policy of externalizing their borders to African territory,” said Alarme Phone Sahara.
According to Tari Dogo, secretary of the regional council, as the Libyan crisis broke in 2011, Agadez became the “last gateway” to Europe, but the EU failed to act forcefully to stem the migrant flow.
“The European Union bears some of the blame for this situation,” he stated.