GENEVA, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) -- Refugees face perils crossing the lakes of Africa as well as at sea, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reported Tuesday in the wake of four Congolese refugees drowning as they sought safety in Uganda after their boat capsized on Lake Albert.
UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said at a UN media briefing that last week that more than 22,000 Congolese had crossed Lake Albert to Uganda, bringing the total number of arrivals to the country to about 34,000 since the beginning of the year.
"Even more lives could be lost on the often perilous lake routes, as increasing numbers of refugees escape inter-communal violence and conflict, across the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)," Baloch warned.
Over the past year, some 120,000 Congolese have fled to neighboring countries, joining the 510,000 refugees that were already in exile.
The refugees either use small canoes or overcrowded and rickety fishing boats, often carrying more than 250 people. The journey to cross the body of water can take up to ten hours.
Overloaded with luggage and fishing nets, the small canoe, which was carrying the four refugees who drowned on Feb. 11, had paddled for nearly two days when it was hit by high waves, causing the passengers to fall overboard.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 7, UNHCR partners recorded two more deaths on Lake Albert, where thousands of people are waiting to cross, some wrangling to get into the boats.
With attacks on villages in the DRC province of Ituri continuing over the weekend, UNHCR has called for increased humanitarian access to the area.
Refugees crossing to Uganda speak of growing attacks against civilian populations, as well as killings and the destruction of private property.
Separately, UNHCR said lake crossings through Lake Tanganyika towards Burundi and Tanzania declined significantly last week.
Some 8,000 people reached Burundi and 1,200 made it to Tanzania.
Army advances against the armed groups inside DRC, as well as a dwindling supply of readily available fishing boats and canoes, may have contributed to the drop in new arrivals, said Baloch.
However, UNHCR is afraid that flows could soon pick up again, given the unpredictable and volatile nature of the conflict.