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.

Migrants who attempt to make it to Europe during winter are also at risk because of the cold weather and because they often lack access to adequate shelter, clothing and heating.

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 Niger, there are strict laws against people smugglers making it harder to cross the Sahara Desert. People smugglers often abandon migrants in the desert with no food or water.  Algeria has a law criminalising irregular migration and if found guilty, migrants can face up to five years in prison.  Morocco regularly carries out major raids on neighbourhoods where migrants live and abandons migrants close to the Algerian border.

Since July 2018, the Moroccan police, together with the Royal Gendarmerie and the Auxiliary Forces, have carried out major raids on the neighbourhoods where refugees and migrants live, particularly in the northern provinces of Tangier, Nador and Tetuan, which share borders with Spain. A report released by Amnesty International said that nearly 5,000 people have been swept up in the raids since July 2018, piled onto buses and abandoned in remote areas close to the Algerian border or in the south of the country, according to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH).

In Libya, migrants who cannot afford to pay smugglers are at risk of being sold at slave markets across the country and forced to work.  Migrants are held in inhumane detention centres in Libya and exposed to torture and abuse and in some cases, sexual violence.  Ongoing conflict in Libya has left thousands of migrants trapped in the country with no safe way out.

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. Migrants are often picked up by Libyan authorities and held in terrible conditions in detention centres. If the detention centres become too full, or if migrants do not have enough money to pay their smugglers, some are sold into forced labour through slave markets. In a report from March 2019 focused on sexual abuse in Libyan detention centres, refugees and migrants told the researchers that sexual violence “happened to everyone”, “is normal in Libya”, “happened to all people inside Libya” and “happened to many, many of my friends”.

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. Italy has been refusing to take in people from search and rescue ships since June 2018. Malta has also refused to accept ships carrying migrants. NGOs have mostly ceased their search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean as a result of legal and administrative obstacles and accusations of aiding smugglers. 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.

In February 2019, Spain and Morocco reached an agreement on an unprecedented strategy to contain irregular immigration. Under the deal, Spain’s sea rescue services are allowed to take rescued migrants back to Moroccan ports. Prior to this agreement, all migrants found by Spanish rescue services in waters off the Strait of Gibraltar or the westernmost section of the Mediterranean Sea were automatically taken to Spanish ports.

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. This route has become increasingly popular. In October 2019, a two-month-old baby and a young child died when a boat carrying 35 migrants sunk in the Aegean Sea. In August 2018, two Iraqi women and their seven daughters died after their boat capsized. The Turkish coast guard has amplified their attempts to curb the numbers of crossings in the last year, intercepting 42,447 irregular migrants between January and October 2019.

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.

Thousands of migrants – mainly Iraqi Kurds – as well as others from Middle Eastern countries have attempted to cross the Belarus border in order to reach the neighbouring EU states of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.  In response, border guards in Poland and Lithuania have forced migrants back into Belarus, without assessing their asylum claims. Many find themselves trapped in the forest area at the border between Belarus and Poland without access to food and water.

Migrants face particular risks migrating during the winter months due to the freezing conditions in open air camps on the Belarus border and the lack of shelter. In the autumn of 2021, several migrants died attempting the crossing due to the freezing conditions. 

Women and children are among those stuck in Belarus. Learn more about the risks that women and children face on an irregular migration journey here.

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