UNHCR Desperate Journeys: A Look into Migrants and Refugees Risky Journeys

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recently released their “Desperate Journeys” report which looks at the treacherous journeys that migrants take to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.  

Despite the decrease in arrivals over the past few years via the Central Mediterranean Route, sea arrivals continue to rise in Spain and Greece.  Between January and June this year, Greece accounted the highest number of migrant arrivals by land and sea at 22,000. By July 2018, Spain became the primary point of entry for migrants to Europe with 27,600 arrivals. However, the EU remains divided on how to deal with the influx of migrants arriving on their shores from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  

The report demonstrates that despite the number of migrants arriving in Europe decreasing, the dangers they face on these journeys has increased.  According to UNHCR, nearly 1,600 migrants have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe so far in 2018. The report mentions that the high death toll due to the decreased capacity of NGOs to operate search and rescue (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean since 2017. As result, rescues and interventions have been carried out by Libyan coast guards further out from shore. This decision has forced migrants to remain on unsafe boats for longer periods and travel longer distances with fewer SAR NGO’s to assist in the event of a capsize. Due to the increase in surveillance by Libyan coast guards and interception of boats carrying refugees and migrants, smugglers are taking greater risks to bring migrants to Europe. 

People aiming to reach to Europe risk their lives multiple times. They risk their lives when they try to flee conflict in their countries, when they need to cross the borders with no authorisation, and when they fall in the hands of traffickers and mafias that promise to take them 

Maria Jesus Vega, a spokesperson from UNHCR in Spain. 

This year alone, the Central Mediterranean saw 10 incidents where more than 50 people died after departing Libya when their dinghy capsized. After failing to cross the Central Mediterranean, those on board are often sent to Libyan detention centres where they subsequently disappear, suffer for long periods in substandard conditions, or perish trafficked by smugglers.  

In 2017, Xchange Foundation conducted a series of interviews with more than 100 migrants during one of Migrant Offshore Aid Station’s (MOAS) search and rescue missions as part of the Central Mediterranean Survey. All respondents had restricted access to regular legal routes to Europe and therefore lacked the ability to migrate safely and regularly, instead of using dangerous smuggling networks and risky journeys to reach Europe. They found that most respondents faced violence and exploitation at the hands of multiple perpetrators during their journeys, such as government officials, human smugglers, and gangs/insurgent groups. Similarly, respondents spoke of other migrants on their journey that went missing or never returned home. Respondents to the survey reported particularly negative experiences in Libya where deaths were frequent in detention centres due to illness, malnutrition, lack of WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) facilities, or untreated wounds from torture. 

The UNHCR report offered several recommendations for the EU, such as providing to safe and legal pathways for those seeking international protection and developing a regional collective approach to disembarkation. Xchange’s survey highlighted the need for more longitudinal studies following the migrants’ journeys from their departure in Libya and documenting their everyday lives and/or struggles in Europe. These could provide a better understanding and holistic picture of migrants. Furthermore, more research is needed to inform national, European, and international policy-making as well as be the basis for better future strategies on improving both the migrants’ and local populations’ lives.        

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[Desperate Journeys: Refugees and Migrants in Europe and at Europe’s Borders, UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency]                                                                                


[Mediterranean refugee numbers drop but crossing is deadlier: UN, Al Jazeerza ] 


[Migrant death rate soars in Mediterranean: U.N] 


[Central Mediterranean Survey 2018, Xchange Foundation].