NIAMEY (Reuters) - Authorities in Niger have destroyed safe houses owned by human trafficking networks for sheltering illegal migrants and forcibly turned back anyone without a valid identity document in towns near its northern border, a government minister said on Thursday.
The government has promised to crack down on smuggling gangs ferrying people across the desert after 92 migrants died trying to make the same trip north to Algeria last year, many of them headed for Europe.
The start of the summer migration season has seen a dramatic rise in the number of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy from the north coast of Africa. Many of these cross the Sahara desert via Niger to reach the Libyan coast, where they embark.
Justice Minister Amadou Marou asked foreign governments and organizations to help the poor Western African nation stem the rising flow of illegal migrants.
"As much as they are determined to leave, we are determined to stop them," Marou told the representatives of organizations including the European Union, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Population Fund.
"We rely on your resources and expertise to help tackle this scourge," Marou said, according to the ministry website.
Many people emigrate to flee Niger which, despite being a uranium producer and one of Africa's newest oil producers, is ranked by the United Nations as one of the world's poorest countries and faces food shortages due to perennial drought.
Marou's made his appeal days after officials said they had prevented more than 500 would-be migrants from trying to cross the Sahara into neighboring Algeria in the past four months. Thirty nine people, including 29 women, have been detained on charges of human trafficking in the northern town of Arlit.
However, that is just a fraction of the total number of migrants crossing Niger, which sits at a crossroads of migrant routes linking North Africa to the rest of the continent.
A report by an internal government investigation accused some police officers of turning a blind eye to people smuggling and profiting from the trade via a system of charges and commissions on vehicles crossing the Sahara.
As of late May, some 43,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy so far this year, the same amount as in the whole of 2013, the Italian coastguard said. Some 60,000 people made the trip in 2011 when the Arab Spring revolutions loosened border controls, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by James Macharia)