In the Kédougou region of south-east Senegal, deep black holes dot the otherwise golden and green savannas.
The area, on the border with Mali, is home to 98 per cent of the country's gold mines. Local villagers have been digging for the precious metal for decades, but in recent years, the region has experienced an unprecedented mining boom.
This gold rush has attracted foreign miners and fuelled demand for sexual services – but is also taking place alongside many popular migration routes.
It is here, in Kédougou, where many women and men who had turned to smugglers for help to cross the Mediterranean become trapped in a nightmare of sexual or labour exploitation.
Many never reach the sea. Some never escape at all.
They are victims of human trafficking and migrant smuggling, two of the many crimes that occur along the migration routes that stretch from countries in North, West and Central Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean.
What happens to migrants during the journey, and how criminal groups operate along these pathways, is the focus of a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published this week.
“Without pathways for regular migration, many people resort to the use of smugglers to facilitate their journey,” said Alexandre Schick, a UNODC expert on human trafficking and migrant smuggling and one of the authors of the report.
“Many of them flee war, persecution, natural disasters or simply search for a better future in another country,” he added.
Smugglers can earn up to 6,000 euros for a single attempt to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. It is a lucrative business, worth between $320 and $550 million globally each year.
The Mediterranean is known as one of deadliest routes for migrants and refugees. In the last ten years, at least 28,802 people have disappeared or lost their lives in the region. Many were sent to their fate at sea in unseaworthy vessels by smugglers.
“But what is less known are the conditions and hardships migrants face before they even reach the shores of the sea,” said Zoi Sakelliadou, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer at UNODC, who also worked on the report.
“Many of those who attempt the crossing never make it. Criminal networks take advantage of migrants’ vulnerable conditions to extort money and exploit them sexually or for forced labour, particularly in gold mines in North Africa, West Africa and the Sahel,” she said.
Gao is the largest city in northern Mali. Here, many areas are controlled by armed groups who traffic people for forced labour.
An estimated 6,000 children, disproportionately boys, are coerced to search for gold in Mali's mines in harsh and unsafe conditions, exposed to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Many of them are refugees, asylum seekers or migrants who work for an indefinite period until they pay off the travel or recruitment costs to their captors.
A similar situation is found in Agadez in central Niger. The country’s vast territory makes it a major transit point along the central Mediterranean route, with people moving from sub-Saharan to North Africa.
The informal nature of Niger’s mines along with a lack of state control, high profit margins from mining, low risk of punishment for criminals and high influx of migrants provide attractive opportunities for smugglers and create fertile ground for crime to flourish.
“The criminals use the central and western Mediterranean routes to their advantage, as they offer favourable logistics to channel migrants into forced labour and sexual exploitation in the mining sites”, said Sakelliadou. “For many people on the move, these routes can be a journey of extreme violence and exploitation, or even death.”
The UNODC report reveals that there is no single group dominating the migrant smuggling market on the two routes. Instead, a variety of actors with different levels of organization and coordination are active in the region.
While some parts of the smuggling routes involve only individuals and small, loosely connected groups with little sophistication, others are under the control of powerful organized criminal networks with a high degree of hierarchy and professionalism, operating across several countries.
The report stresses that migrant smuggling along these routes is linked to systemic corruption. Smugglers pay bribes on behalf of people on the move to state and non-state actors to facilitate the journey. This often involves illegal border crossings or forging fake passports and visas.
Smuggling is often intertwined with drug trafficking, particularly of the synthetic opioid tramadol. Criminals are turning to this illicit business following a boom in demand across the Sahel, using the transport routes for migration.
Recently, smuggling has emerged as a significant source of income for armed groups operating in the Sahel region. Their activities range from extorting passage fees from migrants to kidnapping and holding them in captivity for ransom.
“To stop these criminal activities, we need a whole-of-route approach that will shed light on how smugglers operate and what migrants go through,” said Sakelliadou.