The U.N. refugee agency is appealing for $100 million to provide protection and support for thousands of African refugees risking their lives trying to reach and cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Escalating conflicts and violence in Africa's Sahel region and new displacement in the east and Horn of Africa are causing increasing numbers of people to flee across the Sahara Desert. Many subsequently embark on dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean to Italy in search of asylum.
The U.N. refugee agency reports at least 1,064 people died or disappeared in the central and western Mediterranean Sea in 2020. The agency has verified the deaths of about 1,800 people on the land journey across the Sahara, but says that's just the tip of the iceberg, as it is not possible to collect data on the missing.
Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's special envoy for the central Mediterranean situation, says refugees and migrants recount harrowing tales of brutality and abuse along their journeys. The main risk people face, he says, is that of extortion from smugglers who very quickly become traffickers.
"We heard from many women that they have experienced rape several times along the route," he said. "So, risk of extortion, risk of labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, rape and just murder. Some people were just abandoned in the desert in total neglect, without food and water."
The UNHCR's $100 million strategic action plan and appeal covers 25 countries that are related to the movements of refugees and migrants. Cochetel says the aim is to assist the refugees along their way, as well as to lessen their need to embark on dangerous journeys.
"We may not be able to stop dangerous journeys, but we do not believe in their inevitability," he said. "It is almost too late for us to intervene when people arrive in Libya or in the Western Sahara. Investment in better services and on protection must take place along the route and not only in coastal states."
Cochetel says money will be used to help refugees access education and livelihoods in countries of asylum. Priority will be given to provide protection for refugees in remote locations and to give cash assistance to vulnerable refugees in urban settings.
The UNHCR is appealing to countries to strengthen safe and legal pathways for refugees, including through family reunification, which is a right under international law.