On Thursday, the United Nations migration agency said that West African migrants trying to reach Europe are dying in far greater numbers in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean but efforts to dissuade them may cause new routes to open up.

This year 2,569 migrant deaths have been recorded in the central Mediterranean, while more than 107,000 migrants, mainly West Africans, have reached Italy.

“One thing we still don’t have is an estimate of the number of deaths in the desert,” Richard Danziger, the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) director for West and Central Africa, told a news conference in Geneva.

“We assume, and I think we have said before, that it has to be at least double those who die in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, we really have no evidence of that it is just an assumption. We just don’t know.”

In Niger, the main transit route, people smugglers were increasingly scared of the authorities, which might make them more prone to abandon migrants in the desert, he said.

Many migrants had told of deaths in the desert, and some said the smugglers believed that if they drove fast through minefields they would be safe, said the IOM’s Niger mission chief, Giuseppe Loprete.

Migrant numbers heading through Niger have fallen dramatically after strong action by the government to close migrant “ghettoes” and arrest people smugglers, he said.

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