Thousands of Refugees, Migrants Died in 2021 on Sea Crossings to Europe

The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that refugee and migrant deaths are increasing at an alarming rate.  More than 3,000 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean or Atlantic last year on attempts to reach Europe.

In comparison, 1,439 people died or went missing on those routes in 2019, and about 1,800 in 2020.

Since the beginning of this year, the U.N. refugee agency reports an additional 553 people also have died or gone missing while attempting to reach Europe.

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said desperation is driving more people to make perilous sea journeys in search of protection and a better life.   


“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,” she said. “The sea journey from the West African coastal states such as Senegal, 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.”


Mantoo pointed out that land routes also are highly dangerous, and even more people have died on journeys through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas than on the sea. 


She said many people are subjected to horrific forms of abuse at the hands of smugglers or traffickers, armed and criminal gangs, and sometimes by law enforcement authorities. 


“Among the litany of abuses reported by people traveling these routes are extrajudicial killings, unlawful and arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labor, slavery, forced marriage and other gross human rights violations,” Mantoo said. “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.”   


The UNHCR is calling for support to provide credible alternatives to the dangerous journeys.  It is appealing for $163.5 million to provide increased humanitarian assistance and solutions for people who need international protection. 


The appeal covers some 25 countries in four regions.  All are connected by the same land and sea routes used by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.  The UNHCR aims to provide essential services and protection to people on the move or stranded on route, intercepted at sea, or held in detention. 

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