At least 44 African migrants died of thirst and fatigue en route to Libya after their bus broke down in the middle of the desert of northern Niger on Sunday.
According to local officials, the victims included three babies, two children and 17 women. Six survivors who managed to walk to the remote village of Ashougour are currently being treated at the Dirkou migrant center.
The Red Cross has dispatched a team to the site to investigate the circumstances of the tragedy.
Most of the dead migrants were reportedly from Ghana and Nigeria. The journey from Niger to Libya has become a major route for West African migrants making their way towards Europe. From the Libyan coast, increasing numbers of migrants each year attempt a dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Only last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) documented 335,000 migrants heading northwards out of Niger. By mid-April this year, Italy had registered nearly 42,500 migrants coming by sea, 97 percent of them arriving from Libya.
“Since the end of 2016 there’s been more controls against the trafficking of people, but there’s a trend showing people are willing to take even more risks now,” said International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Aurelie Lachant.
Crossing the Sahara desert remains one the most perilous parts of the trip. Earlier in May, soldiers on patrol in northern Niger rescued around 40 migrants from various West African countries who had been abandoned in the desert by people-smugglers they had paid to get to Libya.