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Sahara desert deaths: Niger declares 3 days of mourning for 92 dead

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 10:57 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Migrants died of dehydration while crossing the Sahara
  • The government was "profoundly moved by the catastrophe," Le Sahel reports
  • The victims, almost all women and children, died after their vehicles broke down
  • They hoped to enter Algeria, a nongovernmental organization says

(CNN) -- The government in Niger has declared three days of national mourning for 92 migrants who died from dehydration after their vehicles broke down in the Sahara desert, state media said Friday.

The government was "profoundly moved by the catastrophe" and "presented its condolences to the victims' families," state-run newspaper Le Sahel reported.

The victims, almost all of them women and children, had been trying to reach Algeria, Azaoua Mahaman of the Synergie nongovernmental organization said Thursday.

Instead, after being stranded in the country's northern desert, they died of thirst.

When found, many of the bodies were severely decomposed and appeared to have been partially eaten by animals.

The travelers were hoping to find a better life for themselves in Algeria, trying to escape the extreme poverty and economic hardships in Niger, Mahaman said.

The country of about 16 million is one of the poorest in the world and lies second from bottom in the U.N.'s Human Development Index.

Hardship and the lack of opportunity prompt many to leave.

Niger's desert north has become a major transit area for migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration, and many people smugglers operate there.

Algeria and Libya are the final destinations for some travelers, while others seek to reach Europe, said Laura Lungarotti, migrant assistance regional specialist in the organization's west and central Africa office in Senegal.

Most are from Niger, although others also come from central and western Africa.

Once they embark on their journeys, they face "extremely dry and difficult conditions," she said. Those who get stranded in the desert face a challenge to survive.

Part of the problem is that many would-be migrants are stopped by Algerian or Libyan authorities and are expelled back over the border into Niger's desert, Lungarotti said.

Some of those kicked out are transported directly to two transit centers run by the International Organization for Migration: outposts in the desert where the migrants can receive food, water and first aid. Others manage to make their own way there.

Despite the dangers, the migrants' numbers have been increasing since the beginning of this year, Lungarotti said. Over the past 10 months, more than 15,000 from Niger and 1,300 from other countries have reached the two transit centers: one in Arlit, closer to Algeria, and the other in Dirkou, nearer to the Libyan border.

It's unusual for so many migrants to be women and children, Lungarotti said of the latest deaths.

A recent study by the migrant organization found that the majority of migrants are men, although there are growing numbers of unaccompanied minors, she said.

CNN's Pierre Meilhan contributed to this report.

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