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Violence, rape, hunger and even organ theft: Migrants face deadly risks in Africa

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Migrants making the perilous overland journey through North Africa to the Mediterranean and Europe risk rape, torture, sex trafficking and even organ theft if they do not die from dehydration or disease, according to a new report released by the United Nations.

Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean have captured global attention over the past decade, but “the number of people dying in the desert is likely to be at least twice as many,” he said. Report The report was released on Friday by two UN agencies and the Center on Mixed Migration, a Denmark-based non-governmental research organization.

The report, based on interviews with more than 31,000 migrants along the route between 2020 and 2023, documents the brutality endured by the growing number of migrants from dozens of countries attempting to cross the Sahel and Sahara deserts to escape war, environmental degradation and poverty.

Physical violence was the risk most often cited by migrants, with the exception of sexual violence, which the report counts separately. Dangers along the way include arbitrary detention — often to extort money from family members — and trafficking for labor, sex or criminal activities. Migrants have described torture and even organ harvesting.

The violence is often perpetrated by organized criminal gangs and militias, especially traffickers who are paid to bring people to Europe. Traffickers often lie to migrants about the dangers they will face, demand more money once they are far from home, and provide little food, water and other supplies along the way.

“I believe all the accidents happened at sea,” Teklebrhan Tefamariam Tekle, an Eritrean refugee now living in Sweden, said in an interview. “The accidents happened in the Sahara Desert. There are Eritrean bodies everywhere. You will find bones and skulls of the dead there.”

Others said migrants and traffickers simply abandoned those who collapsed from thirst or injury along the way. “You just keep going,” said a man named Abraham. “You never look back.”

About a third of the adults interviewed were women, who are particularly at risk. According to one survey, an estimated 90% of women and girls travelling along the Mediterranean have been raped. 2020 United Nations Study, Some were forced into sex work to pay for their passage. There were reports of women being forced to marry their captors and bear their children, and others being forced to pay sexual bribes to secure safe passage for the group.

“These stories are just horrific,” said Judith Sunderland, who was not involved in the report but has interviewed hundreds of survivors in Europe as deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. She said the accounts in the report are very similar to the harrowing stories she has heard.

“You just can’t believe how cruel people can be to each other,” she added. “You can’t understand why people still make these journeys, many knowing the risks.”

Migrants consider Libya, Algeria and Ethiopia to be the most dangerous countries.

According to statistics, more than 72,400 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2024 alone. UNHCRBut while tracking the number of people crossing the sea is difficult, even harder is estimating how many people attempt to cross the remote, sparsely populated and often lawless desert to reach Africa’s north coast — and how many disappear along the way, the report’s authors said.

It said 1,180 people were known to have died crossing the Sahara Desert between January 2020 and May 2024, but the actual number was likely much higher.

European countries have long tried to dissuade migration to varying degrees and have paid North African nations to stop people crossing the ocean. Recent Surveys In some cases, European governments paid to train and equip North African security forces, which then forced migrants off the coast and back into the desert without supplies, putting their lives at risk, a joint report by multiple news organizations found.

Several of the countries that migrants attempt to cross are wracked by armed conflict and extreme poverty, or have weak central governments.

The report, sponsored by the UN International Organization for Migration, said a combination of instability and hostility meant African migrants had little chance of getting any help from authorities or treatment for physical or emotional trauma.

The report, which updates and expands on a report published in 2020, notes that since then, “the security situation has further deteriorated in some countries, leading to increased displacement and a rise in cross-border movements of people and migrants in need of international protection.”

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