Land routes through Africa are twice as deadly for migrants as journeys across the Mediterranean, UN estimates

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GENEVA (AP) — The United Nations and partners say increasing numbers of migrants and refugees in Africa are heading north toward the Mediterranean and Europe, crossing dangerous routes through the Sahara Desert where criminal gangs subject them to slavery, organ harvesting, rape, kidnapping for ransom and other abuses.

A report published Friday by the UN refugee and migration agency and the Mixed Migration Centre research group found that land routes in Africa are twice as deadly as sea routes across the Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest maritime route for migrants.

The report said renewed conflict and instability in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan were behind a surge in journeys to the Mediterranean. But Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Guinea were the main countries of origin for migrants.

It comes as many politicians in Europe and beyond have, in a key election year, stoked or gained support from anti-immigrant sentiment. But conflict, economic turmoil, repression and the impact of climate change in many developing countries have nevertheless fuelled the flow of migrants across borders — risking physical violence and death.

“Refugees and migrants are increasingly travelling through areas where insurgent groups, militias and other criminal actors operate, and where human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, forced labour and sexual exploitation are widespread,” said a summary of the report, which follows up on a similar study conducted four years ago.

The authors acknowledge that there are no comprehensive statistics on deaths on the land routes in Africa. But the refugee agency UNHCR has reported a more than threefold increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia — a major transit country for migrants seeking Europe — between 2020 and 2023.

The report aimed to highlight the dangers of the land routes to the Mediterranean. According to UNHCR figures, more than 72,000 migrants and refugees passed through the Mediterranean in the first half of this year, and 785 people died or went missing in those six months.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy, cited stories of migrants and refugees who had survived. He said some smugglers dump sick people from pickup trucks carrying them across the desert, or don’t go back to pick up others who have fallen off.

“Anyone who has crossed the Sahara can tell you about people they know who died in the desert. But if you interview people on Lampedusa, not many people will tell you about people they know who … died at sea,” he said, referring to an Italian island in the Mediterranean.

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

The authors of the report, which is based on testimonies from more than 31,000 people, said international response has been inadequate and pointed to “huge gaps” in protection and assistance for people making the perilous journey.

“A total of 1,180 people died while crossing the Sahara Desert between January 2020 and May 2024, but the number is likely to be much higher,” the report said.

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

The teams have counted hundreds of cases of organ removal — a practice that has been going on for years, Cochetel said. Sometimes migrants agree to such removals as a way to make money.

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

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


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