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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Gao's deadly migrant trade
BBC News Online's Joseph Winter is tracing the route of an African migrant, Mamadou Saliou "Billy" Diallo, who made it to Europe after a long and dangerous journey across the Sahara. Here, in the second of five articles, he visits the Malian town of Gao - from where thousands set off across the desert hoping to make it to the West.

The Malian town of Gao has been at the centre of cross-Sahara trade for hundreds of years.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, it was the capital of the Songhai empire, which stretched from Senegal to Nigeria.

Gao street scene
Not everyone in Gao has taken kindly to the arrival of migrants
Gold, salt, dates and slaves used to be the most lucrative goods, taken in camel caravans across the desert by Touareg nomads, protected from the elements by the indigo turbans wrapped around their faces.

These days, a new commodity has emerged - people. They are no longer slaves captured from the countries south of the Sahara by raiding parties but willing passengers fleeing the poverty and instability of their home countries.

Mamadou Saliou "Billy" Diallo paid some $430 to be taken from the Mali capital Bamako to Morocco and like many others he passed through Gao.

The West and Central Africans bound for Europe try to stay hidden, knowing that theirs is an illegal journey. But they are not hard to find.

Ask any Gao resident where the "travellers" or "Ghanaians" (although most come from Nigeria) are and they will point out house after house, where they are staying, waiting for their onward transport.

Girls carrying pots on their heads

Their accommodation will normally be organised by the Gao-based people smugglers, who in turn hand them over to the Touaregs, who are still masters of the desert and know routes which avoid the official border crossing-points.

When they venture outside the mud-wall houses, those from coastal countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia are usually obvious.

They tend to be shorter and stockier than the tall, slender people who live closer to the Sahara, and they often wear brightly-coloured shirts, jeans and flashy jewellery instead of long flowing gowns.

One Touareg in Gao said that these "coastal people" often die because they do not know or understand the desert, unlike the Touaregs who live throughout the Sahara, whether in modern-day Mali, Niger or Algeria.

Unreported deaths

It is impossible to know how many people die trying to cross the desert but in two weeks of speaking to migrants in several countries, I heard many similar tales.

Billy's journey started in Dakar, Senegal, and ended more than five months later in Brescia, Italy. Joseph Winter has been tracing his route.

A Nigerian man called Papa, who said he was a guide for other migrants, said he had once found the bodies of 120 people and 60 on another occasion.

They had run out of water and died of thirst in their convoy of vehicles.

Binta from Niger said that she had been part of a group of six people who had walked across the desert for two weeks.

She said that one woman had fallen sick. The others had carried her for two days before they too started to tire and they abandoned her.

The next group of migrants had found her dead body several days later and buried her.

These are extremely remote areas, with not a police station or clinic for thousands of miles.

The only passers-by are other illegal migrants or people smugglers and so these deaths are rarely reported.

Even if they are, many migrants do not carry identity papers, so it is difficult to know who should be informed.

Moussa Sakho from Mali told me that one of his cousins had died in similar circumstances several years ago but he had not yet told the family.

I suspect that the bones of thousands of migrants lie beneath the desert sand.

Organised networks

Those involved are only too well aware of the risks.

Nigerian guide's foot
This guide - who does not want to be identified - has walked the desert for days
I told one of Gao's biggest people smugglers that I wanted to cross the desert.

"Well, I couldn't put you in a truck with the Nigerians. It would be far too dangerous," he replied.

He told me that he had got into the business because there was no other way of making money in this remote outpost, 1,200km from the capital Bamako.

But the networks are tightly organised - before agreeing to be interviewed on the record, he said he would have to consult the "union". Its leaders refused.

Even the authorities did not want to discuss the matter.

One of Gao's most senior officials merely told me: "In this new era of liberalism, the state no longer interferes in such areas."

Local discontent

But although people smuggling generates badly-needed revenue for the town, not everyone is pleased.

Some of those trying to get to Europe run out of money and engage in prostitution to pay their way.

I was told that we would be flying from Bamako to France... I don't want to cross the desert, it's too dangerous
From what I saw, it seemed to be organised by the Nigerian men.

When I started speaking to some women, a man sitting in the corner of the compound shouted at them and they ran away like children who had been scolded by their parents.

One told me that she had been tricked into going to Gao.

"I was told that we would be flying from Bamako to France. I don't want to cross the desert, it's too dangerous," said Lovett.

While some prostitutes can be seen at night wearing their low-cut tops by the side of Gao's sandy streets, others hang out at a bar they have nicknamed Europe.

"Let's go to Europe," they say with a bitter sense of irony, knowing that their real target remains a long way off.

Gao is a strongly Islamic town and some religious leaders have not taken kindly to the rise of prostitution and alcohol, which has accompanied the arrival of the migrants.

One has apparently used his weekly sermons to urge the authorities to ensure that the foreigners respect the town's traditions, or make them leave.

But with so much money at stake, no-one is expecting Gao to change in the near future.

And if the authorities there did try to clamp down, it is unlikely that the people smuggling would stop.

While so many people are willing to spend their hard-earned money and risk their lives in order to get to Europe, the trade would merely shift to another route, like shifting sand finding the point of least resistance to its inevitable advance.

Do you want to comment on this article? Send us your views using the form at the bottom of the page.

Your comments:

I feel ashamed hearing that our people get involved in prostitution
Michael Odenigbo, Busan

As a Nigerian, I feel ashamed hearing that our people get involved in prostitution. It is an illicit trade and before God it is immoral. Parents should desist from allowing their children to engage in it. People should also stop risking their lives to travel to Europe through illegal means. I acknowledge the fact that poverty is the main cause of this dangerous adventure, but is it worth dying for?
Michael Odenigbo, Busan, South Korea.

I think this article is a great one. However, the extreme at which these people have shown in crossing the desert would be helpful if they would decide to be more patriotic in the same manner. I believe promises about a heaven in Europe are made all too real by the lack of African sustainable social infrastructure, to boost hope for the future of its inhabitants. Wealthy people in Europe should stop at once eluding these poor people into such a business.
Wabike Paul, Foxhol, Netherlands

Do we have to all blame poverty? How about the corrupt systems that brought about the poverty? I think it's high time the West knew that supporting corrupt governments in Sub Saharan Africa will create a global calamity.
Nyone George Barielup, Ogoni, Nigeria

The grass is always greener on the other side. Africa is one of the best lands; we have minerals petroleum and so on. All we need is individual responsibilities to trust our land, work hard and stop thinking about Europe and America.
Hassan, USA (Somali)

If the OAU sees to it that no country will be wrongly taken advantage of by ensuring acceptable minimum wages are paid, then there will be plenty of work
Kamanga Mwangi, Lansing

As bleak as it seems, I think the situation in Africa is about to change for the better. Africans just need to realize it and prepare themselves accordingly. Africa is the final labour frontier left for Western business conglomerates to utilize. If the OAU sees to it that no country will be wrongly taken advantage of by ensuring acceptable minimum wages are paid, then there will be plenty of work for all as the West continues to outsource its labour. At this point Gao and other places like it in Africa will have to find different trades to capitalize upon.
Kamanga Mwangi, Lansing, USA

I think that this migrant trade is indeed a shame, and is not only due to poverty, but also to the lack of stability provided by many African governments. There is so much potential and opportunity for Africans to use the same money risked to be smuggled into Europe, for innovative ideas and work in their own countries. African countries must work towards being able to offer a safe, stable and hopeful future to their people, while emphasising that travelling to Europe or America without education or skills is not the answer to African poverty.
Onome, The Gambia

Want to help these people? Help their countries economies to become prosperous and viable. How? Start, with demanding the EU and the US massively reduce their agricultural subsidies to their farmers, and restrictions on agricultural imports from the Third World. Those cows in the EU, receive a subsidy three to four times greater than EU foreign aid. That cow can fly around the world first class while these people die in the Sahara. Go figure. Africa can export food for hard currency if there is a level playing field - that is jobs and a future.
JD Laurin, Spain

Poverty, famine, war and dictatorship force us to move away
Rhoderick, Edinburgh

I think of how hard it is for most of us from the Third World to move here and how so many get abused along the way. The developed world doesn't really want us and most would rather we stay at home. But poverty, famine, war and dictatorship force us to move away. To end this sort of evil trade requires action on the part of the world's democracies to prevent this at every step of the way. Through pressure on those countries that are so badly run that people have to leave, on the people that have no other way of making an income except smuggling people, and on the receiving countries that are so xenophobic that moving there legally is near impossible. It is time we were all more pragmatic and stopped thinking of this as a problem for the West.
Rhoderick, Edinburgh, UK (Zimbabwean)

I think the international community has to react to this kind of trade. It's inhumane. Poverty is not supposed to drive people to such extremities.
Tatenda Makuti, South Africa

It's not easy in Africa. The economy is bad. Governments are not helping matters. What do you expect Africans to do? Life has got to move on. In this sector the end justifies.
Jasper Brishner, Abakwa, Cameroon

It is disappointing and shameful that this kind of business is going on in Africa while our leaders are talking about NEPAD (Africa empowerment economically). I suggest a conference of ministers for youth, women and social development be held to discuss the issues with Mali as the venue.
Ado, Warri, Nigeria

The real root lies in corruption on both an institutional and individual level
Yvonne, Portugal

Poverty isn't a cause; it's a side-effect. The real root lies in corruption on both an institutional and individual level. Regime corruption leads to denial of human rights, discrimination, exploitation and poverty - and desperate people taking any risk to escape. And every society has corrupt individuals ready to seize the opportunity to make a fast buck. Witness UK employment agencies which illegally charge migrants to find them jobs, knowing the migrants daren't complain.
Yvonne, Portugal

What a high price to pay to 'escape' hardship! How can people be made to part with their last penny (from loans and family/village contributions) in search of a (promised) 'better life'? I wonder whether those engaged in this vicious human trade really lack alternatives (as it is claimed). Poverty now seems to be the scapegoat for just about any and every vice in Africa. I am afraid the roots of such criminal trading in people go deeper than a mere quest for survival. I stand to be corrected!
Stephen B Kargbo, Germany

I lived in Niger and while I never saw people smuggling I know that there is the unquenchable desire for a better life. Europe and the Middle East as a whole should be chastised for this crime. The legacy of colonialism and slavery is still being felt by the poor and oppressed.
Obseqweus, New York City, USA

Poverty is not an excuse for prostitution, people smuggling, corruption and murder
Mohammed, Mali/Nigeria/USA

As one who has lived in Gao and experienced it first hand, your article is a breath of fresh air. However, to blame, the actions of people smugglers on poverty is irresponsible. There is unimaginable poverty in Gao without a doubt, nine out of 10 people in Gao do not know where their next meal will come from. This however is not a valid excuse for sending, fellow men into the Sahara, to risk death in the name of profit.
In many cases these people smugglers, abandon their clients in remote towns like Kidal and Menaka. Yet others are left to die in the Sahara, after having been coned of every penny in their pocket. One other point I would like to take issue with is the assertion that the Touareg are the guides. This is wrong, because the mafia that runs the smuggling trade in Gao has not a single Touareg in it. Although the Touareg are known for their knowledge of the desert, they are not major players in this trade. The trade is controlled by Arabs and Sonrai. Arabs are the guides and Sonrai run the Mafia, with Nigerians, and Ghanaians.
Poverty is not an excuse. There are many poor people in Gao, but the fact that they are poor does not negate their faith and humanity. Poverty is not an excuse for prostitution, people smuggling, corruption and murder. Let's not look to Europe to solve this problem lets condemn the Malian government for giving tacit approbation. Nothing will be done on the Malian side because those who profit from it are very well connected to the government. They Malian government can stop this trade. The only thing lacking is will.
Mohammed, Mali/Nigeria/USA

What is the UN doing about this issue? What does it take to make our leaders care?
Suparna Gupta, Boston, USA

As an occasional police interpreter, I have met some of these young Nigerian women in France. It is clear that they are in fact slaves, forced into prostitution, and with no apparent way out, both from fear of the pimps, and from the fact that having been prostitutes, they probably feel unable to return home. What is horrifying is how they are ignored by the authorities.
Sonia Hemingray, Villeurbanne (near Lyon) France

It is how the media reacts to such a tragic history in our time. I hope the international community could be able to find a better way to resolve the problem before it is too late. Well there are sponsors in Europe and elsewhere. They can't be untraceable - that is where it can be stopped to begin with.

I think the article is truly splendid. With so much attention focused on the rising tide of migrants from eastern Europe, one's understanding of the African problem can too often be fragmented. There appears to be an interesting parallel between the Afro-European and Cuban-American migratory situation? How many unreported deaths occur off the coast of Florida?
Georgey Trueman, Birmingham, England

I think the international community has to react to this kind of trade. It's inhuman - poverty is not suppose to drive people to such extremes.
Tatenda Makuti, South Africa

Great article! I'd love to read a follow-up on how this problem of human smuggling is discussed by the respective countries housing it, and those countries that are on the receiving end. If they're in denial, what are the tools for them to start dealing with it. Also, a word from UN on their approach to reducing the need for this deadly exodus would be interesting.
David Bauner, Stockholm, Sweden

This article makes us realise the hardships of people living in Africa and the extent they are willing to go to in order to migrate to the West. It is high time something is done to improve the living standards in sub-Saharan countries.
Sahil Kumar, Minneapolis, USA

I think you have got the point, the only cause of this illegal and dangerous business is poverty. The organisers of this activity have no other way of making money, so they find this activity very profitable.
Adama, Malian living in Bath, UK

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The BBC's Joseph Winter
"The suffocating heat on the edge of the desert means the pace of life is slow"


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