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Violence, Rape, Thirst, Even Organ Theft: Migrants Face Lethal Risks in Africa

The violence often came at the hands of organized criminal gangs and militias, and in particular from the traffickers paid to shepherd people to Europe. Traffickers routinely lie to migrants about the perils they will face, demand more money from them once they are far from home, and provide little in the way of food, water and other provisions along the way.

“I believed all the accidents happen at sea,” Teklebrhan Tefamariam Tekle, an Eritrean refugee now in Sweden, told an interviewer. “The accidents are back there in the Sahara. It is full of Eritrean bodies. There you will find bones and skulls of dead people.”

Others told of migrants and traffickers simply abandoning those who collapsed of thirst or injury along the route. “You just keep going,” said one man, identified as Abraham. “You never look back.”

About one-third of the adults interviewed are women, who face particular dangers. An estimated 90 percent of women and girls traveling along the Mediterranean route were raped, according to one 2020 U.N. study, and some have been forced into sex work to pay for their journey. There are reports of women forced to marry kidnappers and birth their children and others of women having to pay sexual favors for the safe passage of a group.

“The stories are truly horrific,” said Judith Sunderland, who was not involved in producing the report, but as the associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division has interviewed hundreds of people who survived the journey to Europe. The accounts in the report, she said, sounded tragically similar to those she heard.

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