COVID-19 is not a deterrent for migrants who attempt to cross the world’s most dangerous desert and seaAid organisations have sounded the alarm as thousands of people either go missing or perish as they journey from sub-Saharan Africa to reach Europe despite movement restrictions due to COVID-19.
Among those who embarked on this journey this year and have lost their lives, 255 have drowned in the Mediterranean.
Through a multimedia campaign, including illustrations by artist Paul Blow, the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, the Start Network and the Mixed Migration Center have launched a call to the international community to uphold the rights of people making the perilous journey through Mali, Niger, and Libya to Italy and other European destinations.
Migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, face immense suffering, including torture, exploitation and the threat of perishing in the unforgiving desert or sea.
“I want to help my family. I want to help my mother, my father, my sister...this is why I want to go to Libya”, said Abba, a 28-year old Gambian now living in Niger.
“The issues that drive people to move along this route are among the most complex the aid sector has ever witnessed. People’s rights and needs are neglected every step of the way, while tightened border controls push people to attempt ever more irregular and dangerous journeys,” said Hara Caracostas, Head of the Mediterranean Mixed Migration Consortium.
“From Mali, where some people flee in search of protection and security to Libya, where most of those who make it face arbitrary detention and a life in fear of arrest, all those who decide to leave their country just dream of a better life for themselves and their families,” said Hara Caracostas, Head of the Mediterranean Mixed Migration Consortium.
In Niger, a country at the crossroads of migration routes, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are currently caught between the life they left behind and the uncertain future that awaits them if they move onwards in their journeys - and COVID-19 is adding another layer to their suffering.
“In Niger, the pandemic just made things worse: smugglers are now abandoning migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the middle of the desert at higher rates than before out of fear of catching the virus; others continue to be forcibly expelled from neighboring Algeria with no preventive health measures taken to care for them,” said Paul Taylor, IRC West Africa Regional Vice President.
“Meanwhile, in May at least 21 people the IRC was supporting that month are believed to have left Agadez to either go back or continue their journey, indicating that Covid-19 is not stopping people from attempting to seek safety in Europe,” said Paul Taylor, IRC West Africa Regional Vice President.
For those who reach Libya, the country has not brought them the sanctuary they need. Those interviewed attest to the terrifying experiences they went through before receiving support from aid organisations.
“I escaped with my daughter because her father wanted to perform genital mutilation on her. She was 11 years old. He’s a drug addict. Ever since I left Sudan he’s been threatening to kill me and my daughter. ” - Alia, a young mother from Sudan.
“Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are discriminated against at every turn. They’re abused, imprisoned and many become trapped in a cycle of violence that they are desperate to escape from. COVID-19 is further complicating their situation. Libya is one of the most fragile countries in the world and hosts more than 650,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,” said Thomas Garofalo, IRC Libya Country Director.
“The vast majority live in poor conditions in towns and cities where they are under the constant threat of robbery, abduction, detention and abuse. As a result, many live in the shadows, fearing for their lives. 80 per cent report being unable to access health care and the war that has ripped the country apart over the past 15 months has meant that the entire population is struggling with immense health needs that have doubled in the past few months as COVID-19 spreads across the country,” said Thomas Garofalo, IRC Libya Country Director.
“Women are most at risk, and those who are pregnant are even more so as their access to ante-natal care is very limited. COVID-19 only further limits their already scarce access. We support as many people as we can, but there are thousands who are not in a position to seek assistance and many are falling through the cracks,” said Liam Kelly, DRC Libya Country Director.
These dire conditions force thousands to seek safety and protection in Europe by embarking on the most dangerous sea crossing in the world. Not all manage to reach Europe’s shores, but if they do, for many the struggle to live a life in dignity continues.
"The pandemic has made things worse as opportunities have dried up due to the lockdown. In some cases, where employment is available, such as in the agricultural sector where many people work irregularly, proper protection measures against the virus have not been in place. Far more needs to be done to support them including access to formal work and respect for their rights", said Linnea Kessing, Mixed Migration Center Coordinator Europe.
Notes to Editors:
The Mediterranean Mixed Migration Consortium is a partnership between the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Mixed Migration Center and the Start Network, that manages the implementation of a DFID-funded mixed migration programme assisting refugees and migrants across West and North Africa.