Friday, July 12, 2024

Land routes across Africa are twice as deadly for migrants as Mediterranean voyages, UN estimates

GENEVA (AP) — The United Nations and partners say more migrants and refugees in Africa are heading northward toward the Mediterranean and Europe, crossing perilous routes in the Sahara where criminal gangs subject them to enslavement, organ removal, rape, kidnapping for ransom and other abuses.

A report released Friday by the U.N. refugee and migration agencies and the Mixed Migration Centre research group estimated that land routes in Africa are twice as deadly as the sea lanes across the Mediterranean — which is the deadliest maritime route for migrants in the world.

The report said new conflict and instability in countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan have been behind a rise in the number of journeys toward the Mediterranean. But Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Guinea were the top countries of origin of migrants.

It comes as many politicians in Europe and beyond, in an important election year, have fanned or drawn support from anti-immigrant sentiment. But conflict, economic strife, repression and the impact of climate change in many countries in the developing world has fanned the flow of migrants across borders nonetheless — at the risk of physical abuse and death.

“Refugees and migrants are increasingly traversing areas where insurgent groups, militias and other criminal actors operate, and where human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, forced labor and sexual exploitation are rife,” according to a summary of the report, which follows up on a similar study four years ago.

The authors admit there are no comprehensive statistics on deaths on the land routes in Africa. But refugee agency UNHCR has cited a more-than-tripling of the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Tunisia — a key transit country for migrants aiming to get to Europe — between 2020 and 2023.

The report aimed to spotlight the dangers of land routes that lead to the Mediterranean, which was crossed by over 72,000 migrants and refugees in the first half of this year, and where 785 people have died or gone missing over those six months, according to UNHCR figures.

UNHCR special envoy Vincent Cochetel, citing accounts from some migrants and refugees who survived, said some smugglers dump sick people off pickup trucks ferrying them across the desert, or don’t go back to retrieve others who fall off.

“Everyone that has crossed the Sahara can tell you of people they know who died in the desert, whereas you interview people in Lampedusa: Not that many people will tell you about people they know who … died at sea,” he said, alluding to an Italian island in the Mediterranean.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration reported earlier this year that more than 3,100 people died on the Mediterranean crossing last year.

The authors of the report, which drew on testimonies from over 31,000 people, said international action has been inadequate and pointed to “huge gaps” in protection and help for people making the perilous journey.

“In total, 1,180 persons are known to have died while crossing the Sahara Desert for the period January 2020 to May 2024, but the number is believed to be much higher,” it said.

The risk of sexual violence, kidnapping and death was reported by higher percentages of migrants questioned for the report compared to the previous one in 2020, and Algeria, Libya and Ethiopia were considered by respondents as the most dangerous.

The teams have tallied hundreds of cases of organ removals — a practice that has happened for years, Cochetel said. Sometimes, migrants agree to such removals as a way to earn money.

“But most of the time, people are drugged and the organ is removed without their consent: They wake up, and a kidney is missing,” he said.

Libya has emerged as a primary transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. In March, authorities discovered a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 65 migrants in the deserts of western Libya.


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