DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — About 35 African migrants believed to have been traveling to Europe died of thirst and dehydration in the Sahara Desert after mechanical problems left them stranded, a local official in northern Niger said Monday.
Authorities had only now learned of the tragedy that took place about two weeks ago as survivors finally made their way back, said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of the town of Arlit in northern Niger.
"This is human trafficking, I'm afraid," he told The Associated Press. "They were probably heading to the Mediterranean to try to go to Europe, or else to Algeria to work."
The path is a well-known traffickers' route for taking people to North Africa, from where they can try to board boats to Europe.
The perils of migration from Africa to Europe have drawn growing attention and debate since the Lampedusa boat tragedy earlier this month. About 365 migrants drowned on Oct. 3 when a boat capsized near the Italian island, which is closer to North Africa than to the European mainland.
Tens of thousands of West African migrants arrive in Europe by sea each year, according to United Nations figures. And as authorities have cracked down on the sea route, a growing number of those dreaming of Europe take their chances by crossing the desert from Niger or Mali.
In this incident, about 60 people had set off in late September from Arlit headed toward the Algerian border, according to the governor, Col. Garba Makido. Some 20 people survived and already five bodies have been recovered, he added.
The final death toll is not yet known and local authorities gave different accounts of where the victims had died.
They Arlit mayor said a total of 35 people had died, including women and children, after their vehicle broke down in a remote area.
"Some of them tried to continue on foot, but they don't know the desert," he said.
Migrants are willing to pay as much as $3,000 to be taken across the desert from Niger to North Africa and on to Europe, according to a 2011 U.N. report that detailed the role of organized crime in migration to the European Union from West Africa. The main season for making the voyage is between November and March, the report found.