The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced, on Wednesday, that at least 1,750 illegal immigrants died in 2018 and 2019 whilst making journeys between West and East Africa, and the continent’s Mediterranean coast.
According to the humanitarian agency, thousands of refugees and migrants are dying, while many face extreme human rights abuses during their journeys, which the UNCHR described as a journey where “no one cares if you live or die”.
During migration attempts, at least 72% of African migrants die every month, making the routes across the continent some of the most deadly for refugees and migrants in the world, the UNHCR added.
These deaths come in addition to the thousands who have died or gone missing in recent years attempting the journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, after reaching the Mediterranean Sea on the African side.
About 28% of migrant deaths reported in Africa occurred during the attempts to cross the Sahara Desert, with other hotspots for fatalities including Libya, Mali, and Niger.
The migrants also suffered from brutal and inhumane treatment at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias and, in some cases, state officials, the UNHCR reported. Surviving refugees are often left with lasting and severe mental health issues as a result of the traumas they face.
“For too long, the harrowing abuses experienced by refugees and migrants along these overland routes have remained largely invisible,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “This report documents killings and widespread violence of the most brutal nature, perpetrated against desperate people fleeing war, violence and persecution. Strong leadership and concerted action are needed by states in the region, with support from the international community, to end these cruelties, protect the victims, and prosecute the criminals responsible.”
While arriving in Libya is considered as the final stage in the migrant’s journey, they remain at risk from further abuses due to ongoing conflict. The weak rule of law means smugglers, traffickers and militias are often able to act with impunity against the vulnerable refugees.
Alongside their deadly journey, refugees report being subjected to brutal violence, including being burnt with hot oil, melted plastic, or heated metal objects, electrocution and being tied in stress positions.
All migrants, no matter the gender, are at high risk of rape, and sexual and gender-based violence, particularly at checkpoints and border areas, and during desert crossings. A total of 31% of refugees reported that they witnessed or survived sexual violence in 2018 or 2019.
Smugglers were the primary perpetrators of sexual violence in North and East Africa, according to about 60-90% of the reports from the respective routes. However, in West Africa, the primary perpetrators were security forces, military and police officials, accounting for a quarter of reported abuses.
Between 2017 and 2019, the UNHCR recorded over 630 cases of trafficking of refugees in eastern Sudan, with nearly 200 women and girls reporting being survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. The agency has called on the international community to provide more support to the authorities in their fight against human trafficking networks.