More than 3,000 lost at sea trying to reach Europe in 2021: UN

Global refugee agency warns of ‘alarming’ rise in losses as the figure for last year nearly doubles from 2020.

A refugee is seen swimming towards the shore near the Greek island of Lesbos
UNHCR has called for 'urgent support to prevent deaths and protect refugees and asylum seekers who are embarking on dangerous journeys' [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

More than 3,000 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers died or went missing last year while trying to reach Europe via Mediterranean and Atlantic sea routes, according to a new report by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

UNHCR’s Shabia Mantoo told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday that the figure for 2021, a year in which Europe hardened its borders as new refugee crises flared, represented nearly twice the number of lives lost in the previous year.

UNHCR began releasing consolidated tolls in 2019 and the number of lives lost has risen each year since.

“We are seeing the increases soar,” Mantoo said. “It’s alarming.”

Of the 2021 total, 1,924 people were reported dead or missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, according to UNHCR’s report. An additional 1,153 were reported dead or missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands.

“Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats – many of which capsised or were deflated leading to the loss of life,” the agency said.

The dead and missing came from various North and sub-Saharan African countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Eritrea, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, Mantoo said.

The tolls do not include those lost along land routes such as through the punishing Sahara Desert nor those lost in smuggler-run detention centres where survivors have reported sexual violence and forced marriage and labour.

UNHCR noted that an additional 478 people have died or gone missing at sea since the beginning of 2022 and called for “urgent support to prevent deaths and protect refugees and asylum seekers who are embarking on dangerous journeys by land and sea”.

Need for ‘credible alternatives to dangerous journeys’

The agency appealed for $163.5m in support to help provide alternatives to the perilous boat journeys and prevent individuals from becoming the victims of human traffickers who operate on the routes to Europe.

“The appeal covers some 25 countries across four different regions connected by the same land and sea routes which are used by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees,” it said, adding the group includes countries of origin, departure, first asylum, transit, and destination.

UNHCR also urged governments to introduce enhanced “legal frameworks and operational capacities at land and sea borders and in urban centres, and to ensure credible alternatives to dangerous journeys through inclusion, and strengthened youth programming and local community-based development”.

“States must ensure unimpeded humanitarian access for the delivery of essential services to people on the move or stranded en route, intercepted at sea, or held in detention centres, and to determine whether they have international protection needs,” it said.

“Failing this, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people and others will continue to move onwards in dangerous journeys in search of safety and protection.

“Other people, including migrants, will move onwards to seek a better life, hoping to find work or educational opportunities elsewhere in the absence of sufficient seasonal or longer-term legal pathways for safe and orderly migration.”

European countries, many of which have opened their borders for Ukrainians fleeing war, have been criticised for their double standards in dealing with migrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the head of the European Union’s border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, offered to resign after accusations the body mistreated migrants and refugees on the external frontiers of the bloc.

A report by the UN’s rights office last year said that the EU was partly to blame for deaths in the Mediterranean due to unanswered distress calls and the obstruction of humanitarian rescue efforts.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies