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On Location: Death in the Sahara

Video: Morocco is the "waiting room" for Africans trying to get to Europe.

An undocumented migrant from Nigeria survives in a makeshift camp outside Oujda, Morocco. (Solana Pyne/GlobalPost)

OUJDA, Morocco — In his eight-year struggle to find a home in Europe, Nigerian migrant Kingsley Okojie, 35, describes crossing oceans and deserts, escaping prisons and border guards and watching dozens of friends perish along the way.

Living in a trash-strewn camp where Morocco abuts Algeria, Okojie has no documents or passport stamps to prove where he’s been. Only memory and a shaky video, saved on his cell phone, record the 25 comrades he says died of thirst when a Sahara-crossing this year went badly wrong: On the tiny screen, dead bodies dot a sandy plain; one by one, the camera pushes in on their gaunt, eyeless faces baking in the glare.

“The women, the little baby, the pregnant women, everybody died,” Okojie said.

By some estimates, millions of sub-Saharan Africans embark on dangerous odysseys to Europe each year. They cross deserts in the back of trucks and take to the seas in hand-made boats, all in hope of building better lives Italy, Spain or beyond. But officials who track migrants say an increasing number of them are ending up like Okojie — stuck in North Africa with dwindling chances of escape.

“We call them stranded,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. “In some cases they stay in that situation for years.”

Countries like Morocco and Libya were once bridges to Europe, he said, but they’ve become more like holding pens. Economies in southern Europe are faltering, “the surveillance of land and sea borders is being increased, re-admission agreements are being signed, Europe is closing its doors,” Chauzy said.

Precise figures on stranded migrants are hard to come by. It’s an undocumented population that survives largely by keeping out of view.

But Chauzy said one indication more Europe-bound migrants are getting stuck is the rising number who have given up on their journeys and applied for his organization’s program of voluntary return. In Morocco in 2005, only about 250 migrants applied for and received free
plane tickets home paid for by the IOM. This year, more than a thousand did.

Human rights activists who work with migrants say the stranded population grows year by year. Where there were about 1,200 people living in camps outside Oujda three years ago, now some 2,000 are surviving in tent villages scattered through the woods outside town, said Hicham Baraka, co-founder of an aid group called the Beni Znassen Association for Culture, Development and Solidarity.

“Morocco has become a waiting room,” Baraka said. “Right now the immigrants, they are everywhere.”

Baraka said Europe’s closed-door policies simply drive migrants into the company of clandestine human traffickers. And he said the deportations — whether forced by European authorities, or voluntarily undertaken — are actually serving to swell the ranks of the 10,000 to 15,000 sub-Saharan migrants currently living in Morocco.

“You deport a person,” Baraka said “and he comes back with 15.”