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Thousands of disheartened migrants are stranded in Niger due to border closures following a coup

NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — After crossing the desert for three months and then watching other migrants die at sea in his failed attempt to reach Europe, Sahr John Yambasu gave up crossing the Mediterranean and decided to return home to go.

The 29-year-old from Sierra Leone reached Niger on his return journey in June, but United Nations officials said he would have to wait for overcrowded migrant centers to empty before he could be repatriated.

Subsequently, a few weeks later, mutinous soldiers overthrew Niger’s president, causing regional tensions and the closing of the borders. Yambasu was stuck.

He is one of nearly 7,000 disheartened migrants trying to make their way home elsewhere in Africa. According to UN estimates, they have been stranded in Niger since late July when members of the presidential guard overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamad Bazoum. Niger’s junta closed its airspace and regional countries closed border crossings as part of economic and travel sanctions, making it difficult for people to leave.

Niger is an important route, both for Africans trying to reach Libya as a base to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, and for those returning to their homes with help from the United Nations.

Yambasu and others like him are unsure when they can leave.

“I feel sad because it is a country that I do not belong to. It’s not easy,” said Yambasu.

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He told his story, saying he left Sierra Leone in June because of political unrest and hoped to reach Germany. He was given rides across the region until he arrived in Libya, where he boarded a boat with some 200 other migrants. The boat spent days at sea, killing some people on board before being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya.

That was enough for him and he set off for home. Aided by aid groups, he reached Niger but was unable to go any further.

UN officials estimate that about 1,800 people in the precarious situation of Yambasu are living on the streets of Niger as International Organization for Migration centers are too busy to accommodate any more. About 5,000 people are staying in the centers trying to get home.

The UN agency helped about 1,250 people return to their country every month this year. But the closure of borders and airspace has forced the country to temporarily suspend returns and the centers are now stuck with 14% overcapacity, said Paola Pace, acting interim chief of mission for the agency in Niger.

“This situation poses challenges to migrants, as migrants residing in these centers may experience heightened stress and uncertainty, with limited prospects for voluntary returns and already overcrowded facilities,” she said.

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Pace fears that the stagnation in the transit of Africans wanting to return home could increase the exploitation of vulnerable people by traffickers and smugglers, who normally target individuals trying to migrate to Europe.

The shelters help people on their way home, rather than potential migrants heading to Europe — a northern stream that has seen more than 100,000 people cross the central Mediterranean into Italy so far this year, according to Italy’s interior ministry .

COOPI, an Italian aid group sheltering migrants in Niger’s northern town of Assamakka, near the border with Algeria, said another 1,300 people have entered the center since the coup in an attempt to return home.

COOPI is assisting the UN in sheltering people, but has warned that there will be no more food and water if the borders don’t open soon.

Not only are migrants unable to leave, but aid groups are also unable to bring in food and medical supplies.

Morena Zucchelli, head of COOPI’s mission in Niger, said the country only has enough food supplies for the end of August and funding will run out by the end of September.

“If the situation doesn’t change… we can’t guarantee that everything will continue,” she said.

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Before the coup, Niger worked with the European Union to slow the flow of migrants to Libya and Algeria. It was planned that the EU would provide more than $200 million to Niger to help the country tackle security, socio-economic and migration challenges.

It is unclear how cooperative the new military leaders will be with the EU, which has now frozen aid to Niger. Anitta Hipper, spokeswoman for the European Commission, could not say on Tuesday whether cooperation on migration has been suspended. She said only that the EU would “continue to monitor and evaluate the situation”.

Momo Kmulbah is one of those trying to get back home to him in Liberia. He says many of them have nowhere to go for help. He says UN officials have told him to be patient.

The 36-year-old has been sleeping on the sidewalk in Niamey, Niger’s capital, with his two daughters and wife since June, begging for food.

“Our children have no food. I feel confused when I wake up in the morning,” Kmulbah said.


Associated Press writers Renata Brito in Barcelona, ​​Spain, and Lorne Cook in Brussels, Belgium contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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