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UN Refugee Agency appeals for urgent action amid soaring deaths at sea

Briefing notes

UN Refugee Agency appeals for urgent action amid soaring deaths at sea

29 April 2022
Italy, The sea in Catania
The Mediterranean Sea.

More than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Central and Western Mediterranean and Atlantic last year to Europe. This is according to a new report released today by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which calls for urgent support to prevent deaths and protect refugees and asylum seekers who are embarking on dangerous journeys by land and sea.

Of the 2021 total, 1,924 people were reported dead or missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while an additional 1,153 perished or went missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands. The number of those dead and missing reported in 2020 were 1,776 for the three routes. Alarmingly, since the beginning of the year, an additional 478 people have also died or gone missing at sea.

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. 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 drifted off course or otherwise went missing without trace in these waters.

Land routes also continue to be highly dangerous, where 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. Among the litany of abuses reported by people traveling these routes are: extrajudicial killings, unlawful and arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labour, slavery, forced marriage and other gross human rights violations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and related border closures that continued in 2021 have also impacted movements towards North Africa and European coastal countries, with many desperate refugees and migrants turning to smugglers to facilitate these perilous journeys.

UNHCR warns that continued political instability and conflicts, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions as well as the impact of climate change may increase displacement and dangerous onward movements.

Launching an updated protection and solutions strategy for refugees on dangerous journeys along routes towards Europe across the Central and Western Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, UNHCR is calling for US$163.5 million to assist and protect thousands of refugees and others.  

UNHCR is appealing for support to help provide meaningful alternatives to these dangerous journeys and prevent people from becoming victims of traffickers. The approach calls for increased humanitarian assistance, support and solutions for people in need of international protection and survivors of gross human rights abuses. 

The Appeal covers some 25 countries across four different regions connected by the same land and sea routes which are used by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.  They include countries of origin, departure, first asylum, transit, and countries of destinations.

At the same time, UNHCR is urging States to commit to strengthened humanitarian, development and peace action to address protection and solutions challenges.

UNHCR is also calling on states in the regions – in both Africa and Europe – to enhance legal frameworks and operational capacities at land and sea borders and in urban centres, and to ensure credible alternatives to dangerous journeys through inclusion, and strengthened youth programming and local community-based development.

States must ensure unimpeded humanitarian access for the delivery of essential services to people on the move or stranded en route, intercepted at sea, or held in detention centres, and to determine whether they have international protection needs.

Failing this, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people and others will continue to move onwards in dangerous journeys in search of safety and protection. Other people, including migrants, will move onwards to seek a better life, hoping to find work or educational opportunities elsewhere in the absence of sufficient seasonal or longer-term legal pathways for safe and orderly migration.

The full document is available here:

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Note: An earlier version of this briefing note reported 1,544 deaths for 2020 for the two maritime routes. This has now been updated to reflect 1,776 dead and missing for the three maritime routes in 2020.