Refugees and migrants face violence, abuse and death on routes through Africa, new data shows — Global Issues


Data from a new report by the UN refugee agency, UN refugee agencythe UN migration agency IOM and the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) highlights the dangers vulnerable people face when travelling along dangerous land routes, which often go unreported.

Abuse along the route

“Regardless of their status, migrants and refugees appear to face serious human rights violations and abuses along the route… We must not lose our capacity to express outrage at this level of violence,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean.

It is estimated that more people cross the Sahara Desert than the Mediterranean Sea, and the death toll among refugees and migrants in the desert is thought to be twice as high as at sea. The report – “On this journey, no-one cares if you live or die” – covers three years of data collection and warns of a rise in the number of people attempting these dangerous land crossings.

The Director of the IOM Mediterranean Coordination Office, Laurence Hart, stressed that the Central Mediterranean migration route remains one of the deadliest in the world, noting that “a very large number of people” are still taking the risk of undertaking “very dangerous journeys. Obviously, there are many people who do not choose to move, but they are forced to because of… political conflict, instability.”

Push factors

So-called push factors on the migration route include the deteriorating situation in countries of origin and host countries – such as new conflicts in the Sahel and Sudan –, the devastating impact of climate change and disasters on new and protracted emergencies in the East and the Horn of Africa, as well as racism and xenophobia against refugees and migrants.

There are major gaps in protection and assistance along the Central Mediterranean route, forcing refugees and migrants on perilous journeys, the report finds.

“Just last week we heard that 5,000 people died on the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands in the first five months of this year – that’s a 700 percent increase compared to the same period last year,” said Bram Frouws, director of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC). “We also know that, although we don’t have completely accurate figures and it is indeed an underestimate, countless others die on the land routes, all the way to the Mediterranean coast, possibly even more than at sea.”

Insufficient efforts

Despite the international community’s commitment to saving lives and addressing vulnerabilities, the report’s authors warned that current efforts to hold everyone accountable for the abuses and dangers faced by migrants and refugees are inadequate. Criminal groups and traffickers are often responsible for horrific abuses, Frouws said, but “state officials – such as police, military and border guards” – also played a role. “But whoever they are, whatever category they are in, they should be held accountable. But right now, much of this is happening in a situation of almost complete impunity.”

The report notes that smuggling routes are shifting to remote areas to avoid active conflict zones or border controls by state and non-state actors, exposing people on the move to even greater risks.

Forms of ill-treatment reported include torture, physical violence, arbitrary detention, death, kidnapping for ransom, sexual violence and exploitation, slavery, trafficking, forced labour, organ removal, robbery, arbitrary detention, collective expulsions and refoulement.

Increasing life-saving protection

Support and access to justice for survivors of various forms of abuse are rarely available along the routes, the report noted, citing inadequate funding and restrictions on humanitarian access. This is particularly the case in key locations such as informal detention centres and reception facilities.

Despite these challenges, UNHCR, IOM and partners including NGOs and several governments have scaled up life-saving protection services and assistance, identification and referral mechanisms along the routes. But they stress that humanitarian action is not enough.

“It is important to look at how we can regularize or legalize migrants in transit countries if necessary, but also further away… in European countries that are responding to the need for talent and manpower,” said IOM’s Mr. Hart. “Opening regular channels is indeed not a panacea, but it is certainly a tool. Another element, another pillar, on which migration management hinges.”

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