By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - The international community must do more to save the lives of refugees taking risky routes to the Mediterranean due to violence that crosses numerous country borders across a vast swath of sub-Saharan Africa, the UN refugee agency warned Wednesday.
The UNHCR released its 2021 strategic action plan and related funding appeal for the situation, saying it is "deeply worried" as people in the Sahel region face trafficking and abuses, such as kidnap for ransom, forced labor, sexual servitude, and gender-based violence.
The hazards are escalating Sahel conflicts and displacement, new displacement in the East and Horn of Africa, and increasing sea arrivals to the Canary Islands.
The UN recorded more than 1,064 deaths in the Central and Western Mediterranean in 2020, said the UNHCR.
"We hear harrowing first-hand accounts of brutality and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer along the routes towards the Mediterranean," said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
"Many fall prey to traffickers and smugglers and are abused, extorted, raped, and sometimes killed or left to die," said Cochetel.
The Sahel stretches in the northern part of Africa from Senegal in the west on the Atlantic coast, through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast in the east.
The UNHCR also said the Sahel conflict continues escalating, uninterrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the Liptako-Gourma region, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
In Burkina Faso, more than 1,000,000 people have been internally displaced, a four-fold increase in one year.
The emergency is already affecting Mauritania and Chad and risks spilling over into the coastal countries of Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo.
UNHCR said it is seeking just over $100 million to enhance refugee protection in African countries on their way to the Mediterranean and the agency said offering safe, viable alternatives to the dangerous journeys marred by abuse and deaths is critical.
Violence in the region has now forced an estimated 2.9 million people to flee, says UNHCR.
With no prospects for peace and stability in the region, further displacement is likely, said the UN agency.
"Facing protracted displacement, dire conditions in neighboring host countries where they sought shelter, the continued economic impact of the COVID pandemic, and a lack of viable alternatives, many continue to attempt risky sea journeys to Europe," noted the UNHCR.
UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said in February 2020: "The Sahel is the place where we must intervene before this crisis becomes unmanageable."