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An AP blockbuster: Algeria forces 13,000 migrants into the desert, some to their deaths

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“Here in the desert, Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 people in the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children, stranding them without food or water and forcing them to walk, sometimes at gunpoint, under temperatures of up to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).”

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In this May 8, 2018 photo provided by Liberian migrant Ju Dennis, Algerian gendarmes carrying AK-47 assault rifles load migrants onto trucks to drop them off at the Niger border. Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 people in the desert in the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children, stranding them without food or water and forcing them to walk, sometimes at gunpoint, under temperatures of up to 48 C (118 F). Dennis filmed his deportation with a cell phone he kept hidden on his body. – AP Photo / Ju Dennis

With that chilling declaration, the AP opened a new chapter in the ongoing, global saga of migrant suffering. Paris-based Global Enterprise reporter Lori Hinnant, Johannesburg Chief Photographer Jerome Delay and Istanbul-based Global Enterprise video-first journalist Bram Janssen revealed the Algerian government’s complicity in a horror that had gone unreported – and had led to the deaths of an unknown number of migrants. Their exclusive story is the Beat of the Week.

As part of a project on the world’s missing, Hinnant was trying to figure out how many migrants had disappeared – and presumably had died – in the Sahara desert. Hinnant was surprised to find that some had died not on their way to Europe, but on their way back: Pressured by European nations to cut off the flow of migrants in their direction, Algeria was deporting them and abandoning them in the desert.

Hinnant pressed the issue with many humanitarian organizations; all of them knew about the desert expulsions but were initially reluctant to talk because they hoped to resolve the issue quietly with the Algerian government. She eventually determined that Algeria had sent more than 13,000 people into the desert.

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In a May 9, 2018 photo provided by Liberian Ju Dennis, fellow migrants being expelled from Algeria lie in a truck headed towards the Niger border at Point Zero, from which they must walk south into the Sahara towards the Nigerian border post of Assamaka, 10 miles south. In the open truck, migrants struggled to shade their bodies from the sun and hide from the soldiers outside. – AP Photo / Ju Dennis

She then made contact with migrants who had actually been expelled – including some who had already returned to Algeria despite what they had endured. They started sharing not just their stories,but also photos and videos and,finally,real time information about the roundups and expulsions,which by early spring were happening almost daily.

The next challenge was reporting the story in Algeria. First,the team sought visas from Algeria; it has yet to approve them. They got visas from Niger,instead,and headed there. They then sought and received the local permissions needed to travel in the Agadez region,which is considered by the State Department and European governments to be among the most dangerous places in the world for Westerners.

Just reaching the border area required hours of off-road travel in a military convoy. Conditions made the reporting difficult – Delay and Janssen couldn’t work during the peak of the day because parts of their cameras would start to melt. But the team persevered,obtaining more UGC from a migrant there, and capturing the story in stunning words and images.

The story was picked up by French media,including the investigative site Mediapart, and received prominent play in both Al Jazeera and its video outlet AJ+ as well as Sky News,which repackaged the video for its own online version. Hinnant was interviewed on Canadian television,BBC World News, Public Radio International and NPR’s “All Things Considered”:

Most importantly,the expulsions to the desert ground to a halt as soon as AP presented its findings and requested comment from Algeria’s government,about a week before publishing – the longest break the International Organization for Migration has seen since May 2017. They have yet to resume.

For their persistence in following a trail that took them to one of the world’s most inhospitable places – and to an extraordinary tale of death and cruelty – Hinnant, Delay and Janssen share this week’s Beat of the Week award.

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