Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja
No fewer than 3,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers died or went missing last year while trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean and Atlantic sea routes, a United Nations refugee agency report has shown.
The UN, which noted that last year’s number of casualties was the highest toll in recent years, lamented that the number had continued to rise, even as the record of those that died or got missing along land routes was not included.
Thousands of Africans take long, perilous journeys to Europe each year often traversing the Sahara desert and leaving the North African shores on small, inflatable boats fleeing hardship or seeking a better life.
Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) reported 3,077 people as dead or missing, nearly double the 2020 toll, a Reuters report stated.
“We are seeing the increases soar,” UNHCR’s Shabia Mantoo told a news briefing, describing it as “alarming.”
UNHCR began releasing consolidated tolls in 2019 and the number of lives lost has risen each year.
So far in 2022, 553 are reported dead or missing and consistent with previous years, most have died on the Central Mediterranean route, the data showed.
The tolls do not include those lost along land routes such as through the punishing Sahara Desert nor those lost in smuggler-run detention centres where survivors have reported sexual violence and forced marriage and labour.
The dead and missing came from a range of North and Sub-Saharan African countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Eritrea, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Senegal as well as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, Mantoo said.
“We have been urging that there needs to be humanitarian and development action that needs to be strengthened to address these drivers that force people to move in the first place,” she added.
She reiterated concerns about pushbacks, following the release of a report by the UN rights office last year which said that the European Union is partly to blame for deaths in the Mediterranean due to unanswered distress calls and the obstruction of humanitarian rescue efforts.
The organisation demanded urgent action to combat surging deaths among refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants trying to reach Europe.
This year’s figure is up from 1,544 recorded in 2020, with the report showing that for 2021, 1,924 people were reported dead or missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while another 1,153 perished on the North African maritime route to the Canary Islands.
“Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats, many of which capsized or were deflated leading to the loss of life,” Mantoo said.
The sea journey from countries on the West African coast such as Mauritania and Senegal to the Canary Islands was particularly perilous, she said, pointing out that the crossing could take up to 10 days.
“Many boats drifted off course or otherwise went missing without a trace in these waters,” she added. The UNHCR report cautioned that land routes were also “highly dangerous”.
“Even greater numbers may have died on journeys through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas, in detention centres, or while in the captivity of smugglers or traffickers,” the UN said.
UNHCR warned that the Covid-19 pandemic and related border closures had complicated movement further and had forced many desperate refugees and migrants to turn to smugglers to make their perilous journeys.
The UN agency also cautioned that political instability and conflicts, as well as climate change, could increase such dangerous displacement going forward.
“UNHCR is appealing for support to help provide meaningful alternatives to these dangerous journeys and prevent people from becoming victims of traffickers,” Mantoo said.
Also recently, an unspecified number of Nigerians were among African and Asian migrants that died off the coast of Libya in their bid to travel to Europe by boat via the Mediterranean sea.
Only 15 survived as others were drowned in what was described as “one of this year’s worst tragedies” in the incident that took place last November in the Libyan coastal city of Zawara.
The spokesperson for International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Safa Msehli, said the boat left 92 Sudanese, Pakistani, Gambian, Nigerian and Ghanaian migrants on board, adding that ‘’Three of the 15 survivors were transferred to a hospital after they were returned to land.” In a bid to escape unemployment and poverty on the continent, many African youths embark on the risky journey to access greener pastures abroad.