ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – As Pope Francis passed over the Sahara desert Tuesday en route to a six-day visit to sub-Saharan Africa, he paused to pray for migrants who lose their lives trying to cross the desert in search of a better life.

In remarks aboard his ITA Airways flight, the pope noted that the plane was flying over the Sahara Desert, and asked the some 65 journalists traveling with him to “spare a thought and prayer in silence” for all those migrants who, “seeking a bit of freedom,” left everything they had and “crossed without making it.”

“There are many suffering people who made it to the Sahara after having made the decision (to leave home),” he said, noting that after arduous journeys, “they arrive to the Sahara and suffer there. Let us pray for all those people.”

Pope Francis departed Rome Tuesday morning for his fifth trip to Africa and his third to the sub-Saharan part of the continent, which will take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Covering nearly all of north Africa, the Sahara Desert stretches roughly 3,000 miles from east to west and around 800-1,200 miles from north to south and has a total area of 3,320,000 square miles.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world and it is the third-largest desert overall, behind the Antarctica and the northern Arctic deserts.

The journey across the deserts of Africa, the Sahara as well as the Sinai Peninsula, is the only route available for thousands of people desperate to escape war, ethnic cleansing, and abject poverty in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe, which is still seen as a hallmark of opportunity and human rights.

Extreme temperatures, blinding sun, and thick sand make the journey through the Sahara dangerous to those who attempt it, many of whom are brought by human smugglers, surviving on small daily rations of food and water.

Many of these migrants are abandoned by their smugglers on the way, leaving them to fend for themselves in a brutal climate with few resources and often, a complete lack of orientation.

Experts have long agreed that the Sahara crossing is one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world. A report from the Missing Migrants Project (IOM) in 2019 recorded nearly 2,000 deaths in the Sahara since 2014, though the real number is likely much higher, as many deaths go unreported.

In his remarks, Pope Francis also thanked the journalists on board for their work, and asked that they keep him in their prayers.