The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has raised the alarm that refugees and migrants, many of them Nigerians, are taking more “diversified and dangerous journeys” to cross rough seas.
UNHCR Director of Europe Bureau, Vincent Cochetel, while releasing a new report “Desperate Journeys” on Monday in New York, said that they are relying on people-smugglers or using flimsy boats to cross rough seas to Europe.
He said that increased border restrictions and lack of accessible legal ways to reach Europe have caused more desperation among refugees and migrants.
“About 90 percent of them travelled by boat from Libya, and the top two nationalities of those arriving were Nigerians (21 per cent) and Eritreans (11 per cent).
“This route is particularly dangerous and in 2016 more deaths were recorded at sea than ever before.
“Furthermore, children making this journey are especially vulnerable, and the number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving is increasing.
“Last year more than 25,000 came, representing 14 percent of all new arrivals in Italy.
“Their number more than doubled compared to the previous year,” Cochetel warned.
He explained that the “closure” of the Western Balkan route and the EU-Turkey decision in March 2016, caused a drastic decrease in the number of people reaching Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route.
“This report clearly shows that the lack of accessible and safe pathways leads refugees and migrants to take enormous risks while attempting to reach Europe, including those simply trying to join family members.
“However, since then, the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy becomes the primary entry point to Europe and arrival trends in Italy show that the primary nationalities who crossed to Greece had not switched in significant numbers to the Central Mediterranean route.
“In addition to drowning, migrants and refugees also risk being kidnapped, held against their will for several days, physical and sexual abuse, torture and extortion by smugglers and criminal gangs at several points along key routes,” he said.
The UN refugee agency pointed out that in 2016, some 181,436 arrived in Italy by sea in need of international protection, and also victims of trafficking and migrants seeking better lives.
The report also showed that in the last part of 2016, more people reached the continent through the Western Mediterranean route, either by crossing the sea to Spain from Morocco and Algeria or by entering the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta.
Similarly, people continued to leave Turkey along the Eastern Mediterranean route from April onwards, but in much smaller numbers, it said.
Cochetel explained that most crossed the sea to Greece or Cyprus, others also crossed via land into the country or into Bulgaria.
He said, “Most who arrived by sea to Greece (87 per cent) came from the top ten refugee producing countries.
“This was also the case for those who continued to move along the Western Balkans route: in Serbia, for instance, 82 percent of those who arrived came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and almost half are children – 20 percent of those unaccompanied.”
He said these numbers, however, have reduced since April 2016.
He said the study revealed that tens of thousands of people also have been reportedly pushed back by border authorities in Europe, including in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Spain, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The UNHCR also regretted that there were many cases of alleged violence and abuses in apparent efforts to deter further entry attempts.