An odyssey of fear: African asylum seekers tell their stories
News Stories, 19 February 2007
NICOSIA, Cyprus, 19 Feb. (UNHCR) – Christophe* was so desperate to leave his troubled homeland that he was willing to take almost any risk to find sanctuary and the chance of a better future in western Europe.
"If in your house there is fire, you will jump; you won't think how high the building is. The risk is big, but you take it in order to save your life," said the Côte d'Ivoire native, who paid people smugglers US$3,000 for passage to France but ended up here in Cyprus.
Christophe, who last year applied for protection in Cyprus because he feared persecution back home, was smuggled aboard a cargo ship in the Ivorian port of San Pedro and was at sea for two months with seven other compatriots. "I didn't see the light of the sun for so long," he said, adding that they lived on water and meagre food rations provided by the smugglers.
Their case is typical. So far this year, an estimated 100,000 people have crammed onto rickety vessels or stowed away on larger vessels in the hope of reaching Europe, either directly or through islands like the Canaries in the Atlantic or Lampedusa and Cyprus in the Mediterranean. After Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, it became more of a magnet for illegal migrants and asylum seekers en route to continental Europe.
The voyage is fraught with danger and some humanitarian agencies believe that almost a third of those risking the trip perish en route. Most of the boat people are regarded as economic migrants, but they include people of concern to UNHCR – like Christophe and Moroccan asylum seeker Yassine.
As the problem of illegal migration from Africa to Europe rises, some governments are treating all arrivals in the same way. This is a concern to UNHCR, which has put a priority on trying to help governments disentangle genuine refugees from ordinary migrants.
"We are trying to pioneer something called the 10-point plan, which we hope states will see as a positive contribution by UNHCR to their management of this mixed migration problem. The plan includes procedures to distinguish quite quickly between the different groups and to channel each group into an appropriate response mechanism," Erika Feller, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, said in Geneva last week.
Yassine* arrived in Cyprus and asked for asylum in November 2005 after a 10-day trek through the desert, several car journeys and a sea voyage from Egypt to Cyprus. He claimed he was in danger from the authorities because of his membership of a pacifist Islamic movement in his native Morocco.
"I was hiding in a big ship which was carrying some goods. I was told that I was going to Italy. It was after spending some time in the island that I realised I was in Cyprus," said Yassine, who said he had to leave Morocco in such a rush that he did not even have time to pick up his passport.
Like Christophe, he had hoped to reach mainland Europe. But more and more asylum seekers are ending up in Cyprus, which adopted a national refugee law in 2000 and joined the European Union in May 2004. At the end of last year, there were 12, 490 foreigners applying through the government for asylum.
UNHCR in Nicosia tries to ensure that they have access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure and that their rights are being respected. The refugee agency's work informing the asylum seekers about their rights and obligations is an essential factor in ensuring effective protection.
Ultimately, a few of those arriving here would like to move on to other, larger EU countries, such as France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. For many, it will be a rude awakening because of exploitation, xenophobia and bureaucratic tape.
As the problem of irregular migration grows, UNHCR believes that the challenge for European countries on main line migration routes will be to preserve access to asylum procedures while taking steps to curb rising intolerance and discrimination towards refugees and asylum seekers in their own backyard.
By Maria Avraamidou in Nicosia, Cyprus
* Names have been changed for protection reasons.
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UNHCR country pages
UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers
All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.
Implementation of the 10-Point Plan in Different Regions
Regional Stakeholder Conferences
- Regional Conference on Refugee Protection and International Migration in Central Asia
(Almaty, Kazakhstan, 15-16 March 2011)
- Regional Conference on Mixed Movements and Irregular Migration from the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region to Southern Africa
(Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania, 6-7 September 2010)
- Regional Conference on Refugee Protection and International Migration in the Americas: Protection Considerations in the Context of Mixed Migration
(San José, Costa Rica, 19-20 November 2009)
- Regional Conference on "Refugee Protection and International Migration in the Gulf of Aden"
(Sana'a, Yemen, 19-20 May 2008)
- Regional Conference on Refugee Protection and International Migration in West Africa
(Dakar, Senegal, 13-14 November 2008)
- 10-Point Plan Expert Roundtable No.1: Controlling Borders while Ensuring Protection
(Geneva, Switzerland, 20-21 November 2008)
- 10-Point Plan Expert Roundtable No.2: Different People, Different Needs
(Tunis, Tunisia, 6-8 July 2009)
- 10-Point Plan Expert Roundtable No.3: The Return of Non-Refugees and Alternative Migration Options
(Geneva, Switzerland, November 30-December 1, 2009)
Stocking of the 10-Point Plan Project
A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.
The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.
Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.
The makeshift camp at Patras
Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.
The makeshift camp at Patras
Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands
Despite considerable dangers, migrants seeking a better future and refugees fleeing war and persecution continue to board flimsy boats and set off across the high seas. One of the main routes into Europe runs from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands.
Before 2006, most irregular migrants taking this route used small vessels called pateras, which can carry up to 20 people. They left mostly from Morocco and the Western Sahara on the half-day journey. The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.
Although only a small proportion of the almost 32,000 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006 applied for asylum, the number has gone up. More than 500 people applied for asylum in 2007, compared with 359 the year before. This came at a time when the overall number of arrivals by sea went down by 75 percent during 2007.
Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands
Drifting Towards Italy
Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.
The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.
Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.
In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.