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While the world's politicians conjure up fears of a "tsunami of migrants" flooding Europe, in reality it is Libya's economically vulnerable and chronically food-insecure neighbours Niger and Chad that are struggling to cope with an influx of returning migrants, says spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Jean Philippe Chauzy.
Since April 2011, some 80,000 people have fled Libya to Chad, and 75,000 to Niger - many of them returning to communities already struggling with severe food insecurity, economic crisis, or cholera.
"Our biggest concern is that these returns are happening in countries that are already economically very fragile, and at least one of the lifelines for families - remittances - is now completely cut off at the very worst time," said Chauzy. July to October is the lean season in northern Niger and Chad when food prices are generally at their highest and food availability at its lowest.
In addition to the migrants, some 5,000 third-country nationals (TCNs) have been registered by IOM in Niger, and 800 in Chad, most originally from Sudan, Mali, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Migrants who had left home to work in Libya tended to come from communities in already vulnerable areas, said IOM head in Niger Abibatou Wane - in Niger's case Agadez in the northeast, Tillabéry in the east, Zinder in the south and Tahoua in central Niger.
US government food security analysts FEWS NET predicted parts of these regions, as well as Maradi in the south, would reach food insecurity "crisis phase" in August and September. Most vulnerable in terms of food security are households living in Bilma in Agadez region, Tahoua as well as Tanout and Gouré in Zinder, says FEWS NET.
In the transit town of Dirkou in Agadez, the price of basic grains, oil and fuel has risen since May 2011 when migrants started arriving in large numbers, say residents. Ousmane Ibrahim, a trader in Agadez, told IRIN: "It is difficult to find even the most basic foods as they are too expensive."
Several traders told IRIN they have sent their families to the capital, Niamey, until the situation improves.
Many Nigeriens IRIN spoke to were angry the government is not doing more to help them. Ahmed Zargaw, 26, returned to Agadez where he is now unemployed. Like many migrants, en route to Niger he was beaten by bandits who also stole his phone and all of his money. "The government is doing nothing for us. It doesn't even want to acknowledge our presence… They would prefer to look after the Libyans who have fled, and who have a bit of money on them."
Mohamed Annacko, president of the regional council for Agadez, told IRIN the government is "taking all the necessary steps to ensure stability and to secure people's basic needs", without spelling out what that meant. But he admits the authorities do not have enough resources to deal with the situation, even with assistance from NGOs and UN agencies: "We are fighting on two fronts. The situation is alarming both in terms of the humanitarian [food security] situation, and security."
International agencies are also struggling: IOM's transit centre in Dirkou is "overrun" said Chauzy, and high fuel prices linked to the Libya conflict make it difficult to shift people to Agadez and Niamey quickly enough.
Cholera in Chad
While the Chadian authorities have responded "quickly, and have been excellent at allowing IOM and humanitarian actors to provide assistance", according to IOM programme officer Craig Murphy, the biggest concern is that cholera has broken out in areas with high migrant return rates in western Chad, including Mao, capital of Kanem region.
Since the beginning of the year 11,000 people have contracted cholera in Chad, and 340 have died, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Aid agencies are running cholera awareness campaigns for migrants and residents to try to stop the disease spreading further.
In northern transit areas, food insecurity is not currently a big problem, said Murphy. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has been delivering basic food rations to IOM transit sites, the Faya hospital, Mourdi and Zouarke, and will soon do so in Ounianga-Kebir.
For Félix Leger, head of the International Rescue Committee in Chad, which is helping the government give good health care to returnees and host communities in the transit town of Faya, there are two scare scenarios: Libyan refugees start to flee to Chad in large numbers; or a second wave of migrants who have hitherto stayed in the Libyan capital Tripoli, start to cross the border.
Thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants are either stuck or have decided to stay in Libya. Aid agencies are particularly concerned about the 2,500 migrants - among them Chadians, Somalis and Eritreans - who are stuck in Sebha, southwestern Libya, where battles are still raging between the rebel movement-turned-incoming-government (ruling National Transitional Council) and forces fighting for Muammar Gaddafi.
While migrant numbers diminished in August and September from high levels in May and June, the number of Libyans among them rose, according to IOM.
Libyan refugee Mohamed Halil, 42, a former businessman in Tripoli who fled to Agadez, told IRIN: "I fled because Gaddafi's men wanted to kill me as I have family in Benghazi. I was living a peaceful life in Tripoli before this mess started. I don't understand what is happening to my country."
"Before the war we wanted for nothing: water, electricity, gas, housing, free health care… Now I am living in exile and I am suffering a lot. How will I get out? Who will help me?"
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been helping with the Chad response, and has sent a protection officer to assess the situation in Niger, said UNHCR spokesperson Fatimata Lejeune-Kaba.
The cycle of vulnerability is likely to continue once security eventually returns to Libya, predicts IOM's Chauzy. New groups of Nigerien and Chadian migrants will try to head to Libya, since recent returnees will need more time to accumulate enough money to pay for another trip. "The demand for services in Libya will soon start to feed those smuggling networks again and migrants will no doubt once again head straight into situations of vulnerability in Libya."
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
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