New UNHCR approach aims to cut refugee and migrant deaths on risky routes

A Sudanese woman, who fled the conflict in Geneina in Sudan's Darfur region, reacts as she rides a cart alongside makeshift shelters in Adre, Chad August 5, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

A Sudanese woman, who fled the conflict in Geneina in Sudan's Darfur region, reacts as she rides a cart alongside makeshift shelters in Adre, Chad August 5, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

UN refugee agency says forced displacement hits record 120 million, fuelled by conflicts from Sudan to Gaza and Myanmar

Vincent Cochetel is Special Envoy for the Western & Central Mediterranean situation at UNHCR, the UN refugee agency

Ahmed, 23, was tinkering at some carpentry when we recently met in Soukra, Tunisia.  Having fled home in Sudan and at risk of being killed or forcibly enlisted by warring factions, he had crisscrossed his country, then the broader region, seeking a place to regather the shattered remnants of his life.

He did not initially register with humanitarian organisations - either because he lacked information, had misinformation or the support wasn’t always available in the transit hubs he traversed.  Sadly - as with countless others who flee similar situations - instead of safety, Ahmed encountered smugglers, harassment, detention and abuse.

Increasingly, refugees like Ahmed - who cross borders fleeing persecution, war, conflict or violence - move alongside migrants escaping poverty and seeking safety and work to survive.  While the rights of and solutions for the two groups are distinct, they face similar horrors. And as things stand, the international community is struggling to manage both groups.

UNHCR’s latest Global Trends Report shows the growing scale of forced displacement, which has now risen globally to 120 million. But regardless of numbers, the perception of chaotic, spontaneous arrivals has heightened anxiety and fueled anti-refugee, populist narratives in host countries in the Global North and South. This scaremongering is fueled when there is a sense of a lack of control, order and fairness. And it is true that some who are not refugees do try to claim asylum and cannot easily be returned home. This has ripple effects.

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How can the international community improve outcomes for those on the move and the states hosting them? UNHCR is proposing shifting to a “route-based approach” to strengthen support and solutions for refugees and migrants moving together. We are working with partners on this in a few selected routes, such as the Central Mediterranean route, movements towards South Africa and in the Americas. We also hope to extend this approach to Asia.

How does it work? Humanitarian resources are dwindling; they are still needed in countries of first asylum and points of final departure (for example by boat) at the end of long, perilous journeys. But they must also be intensified along the route, to improve identification of refugees, boost protection services, and to improve integration with longer-term development assistance.

We need to provide options for all people on the move. For refugees, that might include resettlement elsewhere, a temporary stay where they are - crucially with opportunities to work and contribute - and other pathways to safety. For migrants, it could be alternatives like sponsorship schemes, humanitarian admission programmes, education, labour mobility opportunities or expedited returns. The latter would require better international cooperation, and support to reintegrate back home. All these options should be facilitated with travel support and documentation.

Providing legal avenues for refugees and migrants would alleviate pressure on asylum systems increasingly overloaded by non-eligible claims. Here, UNHCR is offering its expertise to all states to implement fair yet faster processing and decision-making to slash backlogs. Clearly much more also needs to be done to combat people-smugglers and human trafficking, while bolstering state-led search and rescue support.

To work, this new approach requires new investment to bring economic benefit to host communities along the route. For example, in Eastern Chad, refugee camps need links from their scrubby, remote locations to local markets and the national economy. Without that, refugees will languish, more young men will head to Libya and the Mediterranean and hosts won’t leverage the economic benefits that can accrue from refugees.

As we shift towards more flexible interventions, we are gathering better data on movements. For example, we now know that over 950 people died crossing the Sahara Desert between 2021 and 2023, while 7,600 people died or went missing on the Mediterranean. Due to the region’s scale and inaccessibility, the actual number who perished on land is almost certainly far higher. The two routes deserve equal support, but movements at sea receive much more media coverage and hence attention.

We also have better data now on risks. From 2019 to 2023, the Mixed Migration Centre interviewed 31,500 refugees and migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route. They described severe threats to life, rape, sexual violence, torture, physical violence, kidnapping for ransom, arbitrary detention, robbery, human trafficking, and collective expulsions. Such findings can shape humanitarian assistance, policy responses and planning.

The dangers along some routes are especially high in hard-to-reach places, where humanitarian organisations are not present because they are not granted access or because of prevailing insecurity. Here, humanitarian partners must work with local authorities to create services.

Back on the shores of the Mediterranean, Ahmed recently managed to register with UNHCR and get some basic assistance. His future is uncertain. UNHCR has a plan to create better, more predictable support structures for him, and countless others in limbo. We now need partners to come on board.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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