DAKAR, Aug 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Traffickers in Niger are taking African migrants dreaming of reaching Europe on more dangerous routes through the Sahara desert in order to avoid detection after a government crackdown on smuggling, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it had rescued 1,000 migrants since April in Niger's desert north, a transit point to Libya, from where more than 600,000 people have set out on flimsy boats for Europe in the past four years.
Fewer smugglers are setting off from the Nigerien city of Agadez - a smuggling hub until the European Union last year bankrolled a clampdown - and are now taking more treacherous routes through the Sahara, far away from water sources and basic services, the IOM said.
"Smugglers are taking more risks to avoid major hubs, checkpoints and security controls," Alberto Preato, programme manager at the IOM in Niger, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"But cars break down, drivers get lost and migrants get abandoned ... the conditions are dire," he added. "Migrants say: 'The desert is a larger cemetery than the Mediterranean'."
Thousands of migrants have drowned attempting the sea crossing between Libya and Italy in recent years, yet no data exists for the number of deaths in the vast and unpoliced Sahara.
More migrants may die in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean, says migration tracking group 4mi. Dozens have died of thirst in Niger's desert north in recent months, while hundreds of others have been rescued by authorities.
"Because the desert is so vast ... it is hard to know how many people are actually dying en route," IOM spokeswoman Olivia Headon told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. "But it is definitely in the hundreds if not thousands."
The IOM said it takes those rescued to transit centres, where they receive healthcare, counselling and assistance to return to their countries if they wish to.
The European Union and countries including Germany and Italy have promised the impoverished West African nation hundreds of millions of dollars to combat people smuggling, after at least 300,000 migrants crossed the desert from Niger to Libya in 2016.
That number has largely declined this year - only 60,000 people have entered Niger so far in 2017 - largely due to the EU-backed government crackdown, which has seen smugglers arrested and their vehicles seized, according to the IOM. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert. Additional Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva. Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)