GENEVA - More than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic last year, hoping to reach Europe, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday, appealing for $163.5 million to assist and protect thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.

Of the 2021 total, 1,924 people were reported to have died or gone missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while an additional 1,153 perished or went missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands, according to UNHCR’s newly published report: Protection, saving lives, & solutions for refugees in dangerous Journeys.

Fatalities for 2020, stood at 1,776 for the three routes – reflecting an increase of 478 people since the beginning of this year.

“Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats – many of which capsized or were deflated leading to the loss of life,” UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told journalists at a regular press briefing in Geneva.

Dangerous crossings

The sea journey from West African coastal states, such as Senegal and Mauritania to the Canary Islands, is long and perilous and can take up to 10 days.

“Many boats drifted off course or otherwise went missing without trace in these waters,” she said.

Land routes also continue to be highly dangerous, where even greater numbers may have died on journeys through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas, in detention centres, or while being held by smugglers or traffickers.

Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced labour and marriage are just some of the abuses reported by people traveling these routes.

Other challenges

COVID-related border closures impacted movements towards North Africa and European coastal countries, with many desperate refugees and migrants turning to smugglers.

“Continued political instability and conflicts, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions as well as the impact of climate change may increase displacement and dangerous onward movements,” Ms. Mantoo warned.

Plea for help

In launching an updated protection and solutions strategy for refugees on dangerous journeys along routes towards Europe across the Central and Western Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, UNHCR is appealing for support in providing meaningful alternatives to these dangerous journeys and prevent people from becoming victims of traffickers.

The approach calls for increased humanitarian assistance, support and solutions for people in need of international protection and survivors of gross human rights abuses.

It covers some 25 countries across four regions connected by the same land and sea routes used by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and includes countries of origin, departure, first asylum, transit and destination.

Much-needed actions

To address protection and solution challenges, UNHCR is also urging States to strengthen humanitarian, development, and peace action.

Additionally, it is calling on regional States in both Africa and Europe to enhance legal frameworks and operational capacities at land and sea borders and in urban centres while also guaranteeing inclusion, youth programming and local community-based development as credible alternatives to dangerous journeys.

“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,” the UNHCR spokesperson said.

Treacherous alternative

If these important measures are not carried out, 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 in search of 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.