NIAMEY - The bodies of 34 migrants, including 20 children, who were abandoned by people smugglers while trying to reach neighbouring Algeria were found in the Niger desert last week, authorities said Wednesday.

“Thirty-four people, including five men, nine women and 20 children died trying to cross the desert,” Niger’s interior ministry said in a statement. “They probably died of thirst, as is often the case, and they were found near Assamaka,” a security source told AFP, referring to a border post between Niger and Algeria.

“(The migrants) were abandoned by people smugglers,” the statement added, and only two of the bodies have so far been identified - a man and a 26-year-old woman both from Niger.

Temperatures in the region can reach a brutal 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), with blinding sandstorms tearing across the desert. The hostile conditions mean that only a fraction of those who die trying to cross the area are ever found. Thousands of illegal migrants have arrived in Algeria in recent years, mostly from neighbouring Mali and Niger.

Libya used to play host to the majority of migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, but since that country descended into chaos following the ousting of Moamer Kadhafi, Algeria has become the main destination for the region’s migrants.

Many transit through Algeria headed for Europe, but more than 7,000 migrants from Niger, mostly women and children, were returned to their home country in 2015 as part of an agreement between the two countries’ governments.

Europe has recently turned its attention to trying to curb the number of illegal arrivals from Africa, after a deal with Ankara in March slashed the number of people trying to cross from Turkey. More than 2,814 people have drowned trying to reach Europe since January, according to the UN refugee agency, prompting urgent efforts to tackle the problem.

A new proposal mooted last week involves using EU funds to promote private investment of up to 60 billion euros ($68 billion) in countries where many migrants come from - Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, as well as Jordan and Lebanon.

The European Commission also wants to speed up readmission deals with African countries, and with Pakistan and Afghanistan, to make it easier to send back people who do not win refugee status. The Commission is also set to unveil a plan for a “blue card” system for skilled migrants to come to Europe legally.

The aim is to reduce the incentive for people to try to smuggle themselves into the continent on flimsy boats and put their lives at risk.

Meanwhile, Greece on Thursday moved to speed up the processing of asylum seekers by setting up new committees to decide which of the migrants should be sent back to Turkey, in line with a deal between the EU and Ankara. The reform comes after the 20 current committees have blocked the vast majority of returns to Turkey on the basis that it was not a safe country for the migrants.

Under the controversial deal agreed in March, failed asylum seekers were to be sent back to Turkey in a bid to stem the European Union’s worst ever migrant crisis.

Under the measure adopted by the Greek parliament on Thursday, two judges and a representative of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) will now decide on the asylum requests.

Under measures adopted in 2011 to ensure the independence of such bodies, they have until now comprised a civil servant, a member of the national human rights committee and a UNHCR representative.

The change approved Thursday “reinforces the competence of the commissions” and “will speed up the process, with respect to human rights”, a source at the interior ministry said. Greek media in recent days has said the EU was pressing Athens to make changes to the committees in order to clear the backlog of asylum requests.

Some 8,300 migrants are currently on the Greek islands facing a possible return to Turkey.

Since March 20 when the deal went into force, 462 migrants have been sent back.

They included 31 Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country, but none of them had officially requested asylum in Greece.

Only two Syrian asylum seekers have so far been unsuccessful in their appeals. They have however not yet been sent back to Turkey as they are exploring other legal avenues.

The EU-Turkey deal has also been weakened by a dispute between Brussels and Ankara over visa-free access for Turks into the EU.

The accord has however resulted in a reduction of the number of migrant arrivals in Greece’s Aegean islands, to an average of 47 a day from around 1,740 several months ago.