Physical Risks

Migrants attempt to reach Europe in many dangerous ways, such as hiding in trucks or boats, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to physical risks. Migrants are often told by smugglers that the journey to Europe will be safe and easy, but in fact smuggling puts migrants at serious risk of abuse and exploitation.


In an attempt to reach Europe, migrants are usually loaded onto overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, or in unsafe parts of a vehicle that are not fit to carry passengers. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 2,299 people died in the Mediterranean sea or went missing trying to reach Europe in 2018. On overland routes, many suffocate or are overcome by fumes, or are abandoned with broken-down vehicles before completing their journey.

Migrants are often exploited and abused by smugglers during their journey to Europe, most commonly in Libya. Smugglers often demand more money for each stage of the journey but if migrants run out of cash they may be forced to work as slaves in order to pay the smugglers. Men are usually expected to do hard manual labour, and women are often forced to work as prostitutes. Following the 2017 CNN video of slave auctions in Libya, reports have continued to emerge of migrants being sold by smugglers in slave markets across the country.

The Sahara Desert is a huge and largely ungoverned region where criminal gangs and bandits often attack and kidnap migrants or take their belongings.

The journey through the desert can take weeks. The terrain is difficult, and the temperatures are so high during the day that cars sometimes break down. In the event of a vehicle breaking down or a driver getting lost, migrants can die of starvation, thirst or heatstroke. To maximise profits, smugglers  tend to crowd as many migrants as possible into their vehicles, making the conditions even more dangerous.

Migrants regularly report passing dead bodies on the journey through the desert, and there have been numerous official reports of hundreds of corpses being found in the Sahara. There are likely more irregular migrants dying in the Sahara Desert than in the Mediterranean Sea.

Crossing the Nigerien part of the Sahara Desert takes about four days. Migrants are exposed to many risks during the crossing, including being abandoned in the desert by smugglers. Since the implementation of an anti-smuggling law in 2016 criminalising the transport of migrants, it has become harder to cross the Sahara Desert in Niger as security forces have cracked down on people smugglers.

Crossing the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert is very dangerous. Reports have revealed that between 2017 and 2018, the Algerian authorities were routinely abandoning sub-Saharan African migrants in the Sahara. Migrants were expected to walk long distances in the blistering heat in order to find safety, shelter, food and water.

In 2018, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to form a combined military force to control their joint borders, in an effort to fight human trafficking and terrorism. Sudan has similar border security arrangements with other neighbours, including Libya, Chad and Niger. This means it is likely to become harder to reach Europe through Sudan.

There have been numerous reports of kidnappings along the Eritrea-Sudan border. The kidnapped migrants are held captive, often in the Sinai desert, until their families pay the ransom money. Many Eritreans reported being victims of violence during their captivity, including rape and torture.

Libya is a very unstable state where militia groups often kidnap migrants and hold them hostage. It is common for militia groups to torture hostages and demand a ransom from their relatives in their home countries.

Many migrants say that they underestimated the hardships they would face in Libya and that crossing the Sahara Desert in Libya was the worst part of the journey. Research by Seefar on the experience of West African migrants in Libya revealed that more than half had suffered physical assaults. In a report from Oxfam, out of 31 women interviewed in Libya, 30 said they had been raped.

In 2018, there were over around 600,000 migrants in Libya and over 9,000 migrants were being held in official detention centres, while thousands more were detained by armed groups in unofficial centres, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

According to the IOM, at least 2, 299 people died in the Mediterranean sea or went missing trying to reach Europe in 2018. Smugglers often lie about the length of the journey and the condition and suitability of migrant boats. Smugglers often pack migrants onto overcrowded boats putting migrants at risk of sinking.

Migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean irregularly are more likely to be intercepted and returned to Libya by the authorities due to the strengthening of the Libyan Coast Guard . In 2018, at least 10,000 people were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken back to detention centres.

Humanitarian agencies that once carried out search and rescue operations in the area have been forced to leave the waters. This leaves migrants attempting this crossing even more vulnerable.

Spain was the leading destination for irregular migrants in 2018. According to the IOM, the country received more irregular migrants via the Mediterranean Sea in 2018 than it did throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined. Local authorities are not equipped to deal with the influx of migrants and many migrants end up staying in overcrowded centres.

The sea crossing to Spain is extremely dangerous. According to IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, over 800 people died trying to reach Spain by boat in 2018. In an attempt to avoid the dangerous sea crossing, migrants are increasingly attempting to jump the heavily guarded border fence in Ceuta at the Moroccan Spanish border. Many have been injured by the razor wire fences.

Even if migrants make it over the fence that separates Morocco from Spain, it is possible that they will be returned directly by the Spanish authorities. There have been reports of migrants being returned to Morocco very soon after their forced entry into Spain.

Border control operations limit the number of irregular migrants that can pass undetected from Turkey to Greece by boat. Official figures show that in 2017, Turkey stopped around 45,000 Afghans from reaching Greece.

Smugglers also attempt to take migrants to Europe by crossing the Black Sea from Turkey to Romania. This route is particularly treacherous and there have been reports of migrant boats capsizing due to severe weather conditions.

Some migrants also attempt to reach Europe from Turkey via the Aegean Sea. In August 2018, two Iraqi women and their seven daughters died after their boat capsized.

A record number of Afghans migrated irregularly to Turkey in 2018. Some obtain official identity cards while others live as undocumented migrants in the country. Anecdotal evidence from returnees indicates that a large number of migrants working illegally in Turkey are exploited by employers. They work under very harsh conditions and are often denied payment for their work. Since they are working illegally, they are reluctant to report the issue to the Turkish authorities.
In 2018, Turkey ramped up efforts to send irregular migrants back to their home countries. According to Amnesty International, over 7,000 Afghans were deported in April 2018 alone. Turkey is constructing a 144 km-long wall along the Iranian border to prevent migrants from entering the country irregularly.

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