By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A campaign to inform would-be migrants in Africa about the dangers of heading to Europe via the Mediterranean sea aims to reach people in 15 African countries through social media, radio and television adverts, migration officials said on Wednesday.
The 'Aware Migrants' campaign, which was launched last year by the Italian government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), features video testimonies of migrants who made it to Europe, but were abused, beaten and raped along the way.
The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy - most cross the sea on flimsy boats run by people smugglers - has become the main route to Europe for migrants from Africa after a European Union clampdown last year on sea crossings from Turkey.
A record 181,000 migrants made the perilous journey last year, and arrivals in Italy this year so far have risen by two thirds compared with the same period in 2016, IOM data shows.
The campaign is now targeting potential migrants across West and Central Africa - which account for most arrivals in Italy - with posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, and adverts with local media, said IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.
"The purpose of the campaign is not to tell migrants not to leave - that is a personal choice," he said. "But we need to provide them with as much information as possible, and quickly."
"Many migrants who arrive in Italy are not fully aware of the risks ... their journeys were more dangerous and traumatic than they expected," Di Giacomo told an online press conference.
More than 4,500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in 2016, and nearly 500 people crossing from Libya to Italy have died at sea this year, almost a five-fold increase from this time last year, according to the IOM.
African migrants are also prey to abuse, beatings, imprisonment and rape while heading through the Sahara desert and lawless Libya.
Yet many migrants who make it to Italy do not tell their friends and families about the hardships they have endured. IOM officials hope their campaign will highlight the harsh reality.
In one video on the campaign's website, 23-year-old Ismael talks about being imprisoned with his wife as migrants in Libya.
"They even forced my wife. They slept with my wife. She was pregnant. They used wooden sticks to beat her. She is dead."
In the latest of a slew of measures pushed by the European Union to stop migrants reaching Europe, Italy launched a 200 million euro ($216 million) fund last month to help African countries control their borders.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)