On Location: Death in the Sahara

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.”

When failed travelers step off the free flights home, they say they’re faced with disappointed family members and cast adrift in a job market that’s left them behind. One of the few marketable skills the returnees have is their knowledge of the route north. There are so many people desperate for help getting there, deportees say they quickly find other hopeful migrants willing to pay them as guides.

“They are wasting their time by deporting illegal immigrants,” said Fred Ogbeifuu, 27. After Spain deported him to Nigeria in 2004, Ogbeifuu said he guided six people on his second trip north.

“If they deport me this time around, I will come back with all my family,” Ogbeifuu said. “I will pack them down to Europe.”

It was just such an arrangement that led Kingsley Okojie’s 25 fellow travelers to their death in the desert this year.

Okojie’s first trip had ended with his arrest in Spain in 2007. He said he’d spent just 8 months in the country. Still, in that time, he’d managed to find a job at a grocery store in Madrid — and marry the girl who’d followed him from Nigeria and had just given birth to his son, Kingsley Jr..

Okojie said he spent 48 days in a Spanish jail while a lawyer unsuccessfully argued his case. When police came to drag him aboard a plane bound for Nigeria, Okojie said he nearly went crazy trying to resist.

“They had to tie me,” he said. “Yeah, they tied me.”

Back in Nigeria, Okojie couldn’t find work. Before his departure, he’d studied business administration at university, but there was no money to continue. Desperate to return to his family in Spain, beset by requests to be guided north, Okojie said he finally decided, “I have to move.”

Twenty-six people moved with him, from Nigeria to Mali to Niger. But the Land Cruiser they hired to take them into Algeria became lost in the braided sand tracks that crisscross the Sahara. The truck strayed into Libya. “A journey that was supposed to take us two or three days
took us two weeks,” Okojie said.

Food and water soon ran out. As the weakest died, their bodies were thrown from the truck, he said. One girl in the group had saved a bottle of 7-Up for herself for days. Near the end, she chose to give this last bit of liquid to the driver, Okojie recalled, begging him, “Take us out of this desert.”

“She died,” he said. “Everybody died … save two.”

Libyan police found Okojie and one other man in a patch of desert littered with bodies, he said. One of the officers was so appalled by the scene that he recorded it, giving a copy of the file to Okojie, he said.

The surviving pair was treated for severe dehydration, he said, before authorities threw them into a jail for illegal immigrants. Okojie said he escaped earlier this year, alongside hundreds of others who staged a jailbreak. He then made his way to Morocco, carrying little more than a crucifix he hopes to give his son, and his video record of the dead.

The final image in the phone is of Okojie himself, being drenched with water outside a medical clinic. He is seated on a concrete step, head down, his skin glinting like wet granite. His lean frame doesn’t resemble a famine victim so much as a marathoner — or, as Okojie puts it, “a soldier.”

His lonely war with distance is waged with a singular yet familiar goal. “To be with my family and live a wonderful good life with them.

A good life, a good job,” he said. “That’s my dream.”