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NIAMEY, NIGER —
After three months of crossing the desert and then watching other migrants die at sea in his failed attempt to reach Europe, Sahr John Yambasu gave up on getting across the Mediterranean and decided to go back home.
The 29-year-old from Sierra Leone reached Niger in June on his return journey, but United Nations officials said he had to wait for packed migrant centers to empty before he could be repatriated.
Then mutinous soldiers toppled Niger's president a few weeks later, bringing regional tensions and the shuttering of the borders. Yambasu was trapped.
He is one of nearly 7,000 migrants trying to get home elsewhere in Africa that the U.N. estimates have been stranded in Niger since late July when members of the presidential guard overthrew the country's democratically elected president, Mohamad Bazoum. Niger's junta closed its airspace and regional countries closed border crossings as part of economic and travel sanctions, making it hard for people to leave.
Niger is an important route both for Africans trying to reach Libya as a jumping off spot to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and those who are returning to their homes with help from the United Nations.
Yambasu and others like him are unsure when they will be able to leave.
"I feel sad because it's a country that I don't belong to. It's not easy," Yambasu said.
Recounting his story, he said he left Sierra Leone in June because of political unrest and was hoping to reach Germany. He got rides across the region until arriving in Libya, where he boarded a boat with some 200 other migrants. The boat spent days at sea, with some people dying onboard before it was intercepted by Libya's coast guard and taken back to Libya.
That was enough for him and he headed for home. Helped by aid groups, he made it as far as Niger but has been unable to go farther.
U.N. officials estimate about 1,800 in Yambasu's predicament are living on Niger's streets because centers run by the International Organization for Migration are too crowded to take in more. The centers hold about 5,000 people trying to get home.
The U.N. agency had been assisting approximately 1,250 people a month return to their countries this year. But the closure of borders and airspace has forced it to temporarily suspend returns and its centers are now jammed at 14% over capacity, said Paola Pace, acting interim chief of mission for the agency in Niger.
"This situation poses challenges for migrants as migrants staying in these centers may experience heightened stress and uncertainty with limited prospects for voluntary return and already crowded facilities," she said.
Pace worries the stall in the transiting of Africans seeking to get home could increase exploitation of vulnerable people by traffickers and smugglers who normally focus on individuals trying to migrate to Europe.
The shelters are helping people who are making their way home, rather than would-be migrants heading to Europe — a northern flow that has seen more than 100,000 cross the central Mediterranean to Italy so far this year, according to Italy's interior ministry.
COOPI, an Italian aid group that provides shelter for migrants in Niger's northern town of Assamakka near the border with Algeria, said that since the coup an additional 1,300 people have entered its center trying to return home.
COOPI assists the U.N. in hosting people but has warned that it will run out of food and water if the borders don't open soon.
Not only are migrants unable to leave but aid groups are unable to bring in food and medical supplies.
Morena Zucchelli, head of mission for COOPI in Niger, said it has only enough food stocks to last until the end of August and its funding will run out at the end of September.
"If the situation doesn't change ... we can't guarantee things will continue running," she said.
Before the coup, Niger worked with the European Union in trying to slow the flow of migrants north to Libya and Algeria. The EU had been scheduled to provide more than $200 million to Niger to help it address security, socio-economic and migration challenges.
It's unclear how cooperative the new military leaders will be with the EU, which has now frozen assistance to Niger.
Anitta Hipper, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, could not say Tuesday whether cooperation on migration had been suspended, saying only that the EU would continue to "monitor and evaluate the situation."
Momo Kmulbah, from Liberia, is another of those trying to get back home. He says many of refugees have nowhere to turn for help. He says U.N. officials have told him to be patient.
The 36-year-old has been sleeping on the pavement in Niger's capital, Niamey, with his two daughters and wife since June and they beg for food.
"Our children don't have food to eat. I feel confused when I wake up in the morning," Kmulbah said.