From near-death to life in limbo – an ordeal of smuggled migrants unfolds in African town.
ZOUERAT, Mauritania (AP) – There are no roads to this Sahara Desert town, just tracks in the sand. Yet it has become a holding tank for victims of people-smugglers – Asians who set out to find a better life in Europe and ended up dumped in the desert.
Dozens of Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have turned up in Zouerat over the past 18 months, having been abandoned by the smugglers in the Sahara with little water, no food and no passports. No one knows how many others have died in the empty desert.
Parminder Singh was among 23 men deserted in neighboring Morocco five months ago when the traffickers spotted a military patrol and fled.
“For five days we were alone in the Sahara,” said Singh, a 26-year-old from India’s Punjab region.
They made a half gallon of water last two days, then drank their own urine, and finally lay down on the sand to die.
Mauritanian soldiers found them and brought them to Zouerat.
The Asians say they paid around $15,000 each to be smuggled to Europe. Now they are reduced to going from door to door offering to wash clothes and do odd jobs for food or money. Undocumented, many deep in debt to the smugglers who hold their passports, they have been living in a twilight zone between the homes they left and the homes they dreamed of finding.
They’re a mixed bunch: a carpenter, a greengrocer, a bodybuilding coach, a shopkeeper. Singh says he studied art, history and physical education and has a B.A. Amit Kumar, a 26-year-old from the Indian town of Chandighar, says he ran a courier franchise back home. Here he’s still wearing the sneakers he had on when he came close to death in the desert.
Officials here say they started finding Asian migrants in the Sahara in late 2004. They took in more than 100 in 2005 and housed 59 in the first two months of this year.
Right now there are eight Bangladeshis in one building in Zouerat. In an abandoned movie house on the other side of town live 42 Indians. They play cricket and bake chapati on an outdoor grill
The International Migrant Organization is working for their repatriation, and hopes to get a plane to Zouerat to pick them up next week.
And hope persists. They have heard of others who made it to Europe, and some of them are considering trying again. The traffickers even send agents to lure them into another trip. According to Singh, 29 Pakistanis who had been in Zouerat have just left on another attempt to cross the Sahara. He doesn’t know if they made it.
West Africa’s porous borders and easy-to-obtain visas make it attractive to traffickers, said Vijaya Souri of the International Migration Organization.
The road to Europe is a long one – a 6,000 mile flight from India to West Africa, and then the illegal leg begins – some 1,000 miles over the Sahara in four-wheel drive vehicles and onward to a North African port from which the migrants will try to sneak into southern Europe in search of work.
Zouerat Police Chief Sidi Salem says many are discovered near death, cheated by their traffickers who will drop them by the first city lights they encounter and say “There’s Spain. There’s Morocco.”‘
It gets crueler.
“We were in the desert and they brought out a satellite phone and demanded that we each get our parents to send another 2,000 euros,” about $2,500, said Mustafa Mulla, a 29-year-old from Bangladesh.
The Indians in his group managed to get the money wired but the eight Bangladeshis couldn’t and were left behind. They too had precious little water and barely survived. The smugglers returned a week later, but only to drop them 60 miles from Zouerat. The men made it to the town by walking at night toward hazy lights on the horizon.
The migrants say the smugglers’ agents in Dakar are Asians and Africans, while those who drive them through the desert are Africans.
Singh said the migrants have told police about the Malian and Mauritanian agents who show up to pressure them into paying for a second foray into the desert. They even gave authorities the cell phone number of the man who arranged their trip from Dakar, an Indian living in Senegal.
Salem said his force has prosecuted some of the smugglers, but that all the cases were thrown out of court because no one was caught actually transporting people.
The Bangladeshis have decided to stay put and are applying for Mauritanian citizenship. Mulla said none of them can go back until they have made enough money to pay off the loans they took to pay the smugglers, and that could take three to four years.
If there’s any upside to the sad drama playing out in Mauritania, one of the world’s poorest countries, it’s Zouerat’s big heart. The Asians sing the praises of the town of 34,000. The authorities gave them a roof under which to shelter from the fierce heat, Zouerat families “adopted” a couple of them, and townspeople often give the Indians food even if they have no odd jobs for them, Singh said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press Writer Neelesh Misra contributed to this story from New Delhi, India.