From Libya to Agadez: the difficult return

Habiba ISMAEL has dark rings under her eyes and looks tired. She has agreed to open the door of her house in Agadez, Niger, to tell Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF) the story of her journey from Libya. Along with several hundred immigrants fleeing the bombing, her experience has not been a happy one.

Agadez is 1,300km from the Libyan border. It is where migrants wait before going back to Libya or returning to their places of origin in Niger. Habiba is waiting to go back to the neighbouring country, “as soon as things calm down”.

MSF has been running a free healthcare project for migrants who cross the Niger border since 2010. For many years, Nigeriens have travelled to Libya between June and October in the period between harvests to seek what their land does not give them. It is an economic migration. Niger is also a transit country for migrants from other African countries on their long and perilous journey to reach Europe.

However, things have become difficult with the war. The flow of people has continued in both directions: from Libya to Niger, and, perhaps surprisingly, from Niger to Libya. It is now highly unpredictable, however. In January 2011, MSF gave over 450 medical consultations to migrants in Agadez, a figure that peaked at double that in May. In June, this figure dropped sharply again.

Habiba decided to go back to Niger when her life became impossible. Air raids were endangering the lives of her loved ones. “At night we would sleep outdoors in case there was an air raid,” she recalls. “In the morning we would go back to check the damage.”

She cares for nine children. Her three sons are still in Libya. “I’m in contact with them and I’m scared they’re in danger.” She also looks after the grandmother. Nobody in the family is currently in work.

Two oases in the desert: MSF in Dirkou and Agadez
When the situation became impossible, Habiba took a taxi in the shabiyat (district) of Sabha, in mid-western Libya, to Dirkou, a border city between the two countries. “We brought everything we could.”

Dirkou is a bleak and barren land, of a bright yellow hue. All around is desert, as far as the eyes can see. Between January and March a mobile MSF clinic provided medical care to sub-Saharans that had been deported from Libya. The team saw over 1,000 patients.

In March, migrants who were fleeing the fighting, like Habiba, began to arrive. As their numbers surged, the risk of an epidemic did also. MSF supported the Ministry of Health to set up and carry out a measles vaccination campaign. One thousand people were vaccinated in Dirkou and 7,500 in Agadez.

MSF currently has a team closely monitoring the situation in Dirkou. Developments in Libya will be decisive.

From the border city to Agadez, Habiba’s family continued their journey by lorry. Along the way, 5-year-old Mohamed’s left leg was broken when suitcases fell on top of him. MSF put it in plaster and is monitoring him. He has been immobilised for 27 days.

The family’s medical needs do not end there. The children have nightmares about the bombings. Habiba has lost her appetite. “It is very serious to leave your life behind,” she explains.

An interrupted life
Like many of the migrants who are forced to go back to Niger, Habiba’s family had been living in Libya for over 25 years. The roots they once had in the sub-Saharan country have been lost. Although these migrants are going back to the country where they were born, there is nothing left for them there any more.

“In Libya we had government food benefits and free healthcare. In Niger we have nothing,” she laments. “I have to support my family with what I’ve brought from Libya.”

Habiba is concerned about the health of her children and their education. “In Niger I’m not aware of an immunisation scheme and that worries me.” One of her grandchildren, Alkasum, is scared of needles and hides behind his grandmother when she talks about vaccines. Habiba wants the younger generation of her family to continue their studies. “It’s their future,” she says firmly.