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Protection, saving lives, & solutions for refugees in dangerous journeys: Routes towards the Western & Central Mediterranean Sea (April 2022)


As Africa and Europe consolidate their renewed partnership, UNHCR will work to support their “Joint Vision” on migration and mobility to address root causes in countries of origin and asylum; to enable states to regulate asylum and protection in accordance with international law; to save lives; to address grave and systematic violations of human rights of people on the move; and to enable sustainable solutions.

UNHCR will seek to mobilize support for these priorities through the Khartoum and Rabat Processes under the Joint Valetta Action Plan, and the AU-EU-UN Tripartite Task Force on Libya, guided by the Global Compact for Refugees and its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). UNHCR will also draw inspiration from inter alia, the Final Recommendations on International Protection in Mixed Movements in the Central Mediterranean of June 2021 by North African and the League of Arab States in Sharm El Sheikh,4 the Comprehensive Solutions Strategy for Sudan and South Sudan,5 the Roadmap for Comprehensive Solutions for Ivorian Refugees,6 the Reaffirmation of the Commitments of the Abuja Action Statement and their Implementation,7 and the Conclusion of the Bamako Dialogue on Protection and Solutions.8 UNHCR will also seek out routes-based partnerships through the Cities #With Refugees initiative, in common efforts on protection and solutions.

The number of victims who died, were reported missing, or who endured unspeakable violations of their human rights in 2021 bears witness to this very public and sustained tragedy, with no end in sight. Public attention remains fixated on mixed movements by land from south to north, across the Sahara Desert to and through North Africa and on the more mediatized sea movements to Italy, Malta, and Spain, all producing a devastating human toll.9 Much less attention was paid, and research done on the equally important south-to-south mixed movements, which present similar protection risks. And with rapidly increasing numbers of IDPs in the Sahel, there is an urgent need to understand whether this group will also embark on to dangerous onward movements in the absence of solutions where they are.

In 2021, 1,153 refugees and migrants were reported dead or gone missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands, and 1,924 along the Western and Central Mediterranean routes.10 Many crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy inflatable boats, which often capsized or deflated, leading to the loss of life.11 The sea journey from West African coastal states such as Senegal and Mauritania to the Canary Islands is long and perilous and can take up to 10 days. Many boats have drifted off course or otherwise gone missing without a trace in these waters.12 It is estimated the majority of those lost at sea crossing from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to Spain, Italy, and Malta, were nationals of North African countries, with many others from West and East Africa. Some 6% of arrivals to Europe through Mediterranean routes were from Bangladesh.13 However, accurate data on deaths and missing are difficult to access and data collection and sharing of incidents at sea remain incomplete for these maritime routes.

Even greater numbers may have died along land routes through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas, in detention centres, or while in the captivity of smugglers or traffickers. A joint report by UNHCR and the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) published in 2020 indicated that some 1,750 people may have died along the land routes to and through Libya and Egypt between 2018 and 2019, an average of at least 72 deaths a month.14 No such route-based study was possible in 2021 due to the pandemic, but partial information from the West and North African maritime route and the Central Mediterranean suggest that land routes continued to be equally dangerous during 2021.15 Various media documented incidents of death en route in the desert along mixed movements routes or stranded in places with no adequate shelter in 2021.16 Refugees and migrants also continued to share such incidents they had personally witnessed.