The bodies of 87 migrants who died of thirst were found Wednesday in Niger's northern desert, Agence France-Presse reported. The discovery follows reports on Monday that at least 30 migrants who died of dehydration two weeks ago were found in the Sahara desert, after the vehicle they were traveling in had mechanical problems and left them stranded.
The corpses of seven men, 32 women and 48 children were found Wednesday near the Algerian border, security sources said. The migrants had been trying to emigrate to Algeria, from where they were believed to have been headed to Europe in search of a better life.
Almoustapha Alhacen, a spokesman of local aid organization Aghir In'man, confirmed the death toll and gave a graphic account of discovering the bodies.
"The corpses were decomposed; it was horrible," he said. "We found them in different locations in a 20km radius and in small groups, often under trees, or under the sun. Sometimes a mother and children, but some lone children too."
Authorities had only learned of the tragedy that took place about two weeks ago as the 21 survivors finally made their way back, said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of the town of Arlit in northern Niger.
"This is human trafficking, I'm afraid," Feltou told The Associated Press. "They were probably heading to the Mediterranean to try to go to Europe, or else to Algeria to work."
The path is a well-known traffickers' route for taking people to North Africa, from where they can try to board boats to Europe.
The perils of migration from Africa to Europe have drawn growing attention and debate since the Lampedusa boat tragedy earlier this month. About 365 migrants drowned on Oct. 3 when a boat capsized near the Italian island, which is closer to North Africa than to the European mainland.
Tens of thousands of West African migrants arrive in Europe by sea each year, according to the United Nations. Migrants are willing to pay as much as $3,000 to be taken across the desert from Niger to North Africa and on to Europe. Most arrive between November and March, the U.N. found.
In this incident, the migrants set off in late September from Arlit headed toward the Algerian border, according to the governor, Col. Garba Makido. Local authorities gave different accounts of where the victims had died, after their vehicle broke down in a remote area.
"Some of them tried to continue on foot, but they don't know the desert," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services