The United Nations on Wednesday appealed to member countries for $100 million to help it boost support for refugees fleeing escalating conflicts and crises in Africa and embarking on risky migration routes to Europe.
The UN refugee agency voiced deep concern over swelling displacement from conflicts in Africa’s Sahel region, as well as in the continent’s east.
This, it said, was driving more people to attempt deadly crossings of the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe, resulting in at least 1,064 deaths along the central and western crossing routes in 2020.
“UNHCR is seeking just over $100 million to enhance refugee protection in African countries en route to the Mediterranean. Offering safe and viable alternatives to the perilous journeys marred by abuse and deaths is the critical priority”, the agency said in a statement.
Violence across the Sahel region, which stretches from Senegal through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan, has forced around 2.9 million people to flee their homes, according to UN figures.
“With no prospects for peace and stability in the region, further displacement is highly likely,” it warned, stressing that “many continue to attempt risky sea journeys to Europe.”
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the situation in the Central Mediterranean, said the insecurity had already contributed to rising numbers of people trying to reach Europe.
“We would like to work more effectively on the alternatives to those dangerous journeys”, he said.
Departures from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya soared by 141 percent last year, as nearly 71,000 people tried to cross the central Mediterranean route.
Only 36,000 made it across though — nearly all of them, more than 34,000, arriving in Italy, which saw arrivals balloon threefold from 2019.
At the same time, more than 23,000 people took the western route to the Canary Islands in 2020.
UNHCR pointed to factors driving many to try to make their way towards the Mediterranean, including dire conditions in neighbouring countries where many had already attempted to seek shelter and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crossing the sea itself is not the only dangerous part of the journey for many of the refugees and migrants trying to make their way to Europe.
“We hear harrowing firsthand accounts of brutality and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer along the routes towards the Mediterranean.
“Many fall prey to traffickers and smugglers and are abused, extorted, raped, and sometimes killed or left to die”, Cochetel said.
UNHCR said that the money it was seeking was part of an updated strategy aimed at increasing outreach, identification and assistance to refugees along the migration routes.
“It is almost too late for us to intervene when people arrive in Libya or in the Western Sahara”, Cochetel said, insisting that investment in life-saving protection and support was needed “along the route, not only in coastal states.”
UNHCR also reiterated its call to countries to make it easier for refugees to move legally across borders, including through family reunification, to reduce their need to set off on dangerous land and sea journeys in the first place.
The UN agency has repeatedly lambasted countries which close their doors to desperate refugees and in particular European nations that have left migrants stranded at sea for long periods of time and supported repatriation to chaos-wracked Libya.
The UN Human Rights Committee meanwhile faulted Italy on Wednesday for failing to protect the lives of more than 200 migrants, including 60 children, who died in a 2013 shipwreck.
The case was brought by three Syrians and a Palestinian who survived the sinking of the ship, which was carrying more than 400 people.
The committee of independent experts said Italy had failed to respond promptly to a number of distress calls from the sinking boat.