Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Death toll warning as ‘short-term’ approach to European migration crisis is criticised

UNHCR claims hidden African death risk for migrants trying to reach Europe

Migrants gather outside a detention centre in Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, Libya, on July 7, 2019, four days after it was hit by an air strike. Reuters
Migrants gather outside a detention centre in Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, Libya, on July 7, 2019, four days after it was hit by an air strike. Reuters

A leading UN official has warned that twice as many migrants die attempting to cross Africa to reach Europe than the more widely known toll of those who perish in the Mediterranean.

Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee agency's envoy for the central Mediterranean, said the size of the crisis was much greater than many appreciated.

"We assume that at least two times as many people probably die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea as in the sea itself," he said. "It is a tragedy."

A monitoring mission by the International Organisation for Migration estimates that 1,087 drowned crossing the Mediterranean so far this year. that month. The refugee agency registered a total of 2,299 dead or missing in 2018.

More than 19,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean between 2014 and the end of October.

The comments came as a high profile report in Britain attacked the government’s “flawed,” short-term approach to migration risks worsening the migrant crisis.

EU deals with migrant countries such as Libya, Niger and Sudan risk fuelling human rights abuse and can be used as leverage, such as with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent threat to “reopen the gates”, the cross-party group of backbench MPs found.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said it was “deeply concerned” at the lack of search and rescue ships in the Mediterranean and said the UK government had done little to convince the committee it was engaged with the problem.

One witness the committee spoke to accused Europe of “letting people die as a deterrent” to migration amid a shortfall in rescue ships.

“We recommend that the UK Government works with European partners to take the necessary steps to ensure additional search-and-rescue capability," the committee said.

"And in its response to the committee, it should set out how it will assess and determine this capacity, including targeting a reduction in attempts and a lowering of the fatality rate.”

In 2019, one person died for every six who made it to Europe after leaving Libya, the main origin for migrants, compared to one in 38 in 2017.

“A policy focused exclusively on closing borders serves to drive migrants to take more dangerous routes and pushes them into the hands of criminal groups,” the report said.

It called for greater protection for migrants in detention centres and quoted “compelling” evidence that they were tortured and subjected to sexual abuse.

“The EU’s migration deals with Libya have achieved the short-term political 'win' of cutting migrant numbers, but at the cost of fuelling human rights abuses, strengthening armed groups, and undermining stability in the longer term,” the report said.

The committee’s chair, Tom Tugendhat, warned that unexpected surges in irregular migration are possible and cited the US withdrawal from areas held by Syrian Kurdish fighters and a Turkish military operation in the territory as a possible spark for an increased movement of people into Europe.

Mr Tugendhat said the recent discovery of 39 dead people in a refrigerated lorry in England should serve as a “wake-up call” to the government that the UK is not immune from migrant crises.

The committee also heard evidence that climate change, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa, could drive migration in future decades.

In response to the report, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said it is working with international partners to deal with the criminals groups that sustain human trafficking.

“Tackling the scourge of human trafficking at every stage of the migrant journey - overseas, at our borders and in the UK - is a major priority," a government spokesman told The National in a statement.

"The UK Government and law enforcement agencies work extensively with European, global partners, key transit countries, and the nations of origin to stand up to the global criminal industry that perpetuates human suffering,” he added.

Updated: November 4, 2019 07:44 PM

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