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Routes Towards Western and Central Mediterranean Sea: Working on Alternatives to Dangerous Journeys for Refugees, UNHCR’s Updated Risk Mitigation Strategy and Appeal, January 2021



The dangerous irregular mixed movements of refugees and migrants across the Sahara Desert towards and through North African countries as well as via the sea routes to Italy, Malta, and Spain continue to take a devastating toll on human life.

In 2020, some 1,5501 refugees and migrants were reported dead or gone missing in irregular movements at sea from West and North Africa to Italy, Malta and Spain. While some 524 of these losses occurred as people tried to cross the sea from Libya, often on overcrowded inflatable boats which sometimes capsized or deflated, a further 201 people, majority West African, drowned trying to cross the sea from Tunisia. Also, as the number of people trying to cross to the Canary Islands from West and North Africa increased, so too did the number of deaths and people gone missing with at least 480 reported in 2020. In addition, many others died along land routes through the desert, in detention centres, or in the captivity of smugglers or traffickers.

A joint report by UNHCR and the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) published earlier this year 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. At least a further 85 deaths have been recorded along land routes in 2020,* including 30 people killed by traffickers in Mizdah, Libya, in May.* It is however important to note that many more deaths are likely to go unrecorded.

Extrajudicial killings, being left to die in the desert, torture including to extract ransoms, gender-based violence and exploitation, forced labour, forced marriage and other gross human rights abuses are among the many risks faced by people as they travel from West Africa or the East and Horn of Africa to and through North Africa.*

The joint report by UNHCR and MMC* highlighted these multiple risks, reflected some of the key locations where they are more acute, and noted that refugees and migrants face the possibility of violence from multiple actors along the route.

For example, according to survey data presented in the report, the main perpetrators of gender-based violence against asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants are human traffickers and smugglers, while law enforcement authorities, security forces, police or military as well as border guards or immigration officials were reported to be primarily responsible for the incidents of physical violence, especially in West Africa. Criminal gangs, often operating with the protection of armed groups, are also responsible for some of these abuses.