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UNHCR chief calls on EU to harmonize asylum systems

News Stories, 28 March 2008

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
High Commissioner Guterres (left) with Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel. Talks in Slovenia took place in a friendly and constructive atmosphere.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, March 28 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has stressed the need for a harmonized asylum system in European Union countries.

Guterres, meeting with senior Slovenian officials here on Wednesday, said current inconsistencies between national asylum systems compelled people to move around the EU in search of protection.

When up to 90 percent of Iraqis seeking asylum in Sweden are recognized and zero percent get protection in Greece, they will move accordingly, Guterres explained. The lack of a harmonized asylum system encouraged asylum seekers to disappear from one country and move on to another.

The High Commissioner noted that in the public opinion this search for protection was interpreted as an abuse of the system, adding that this was not the case.

Guterres called for swift harmonization, but he cautioned that the EU should not neglect the quality of the asylum system: "Europe has a common space and common borders, but the only thing that is common in the asylum system is a drift towards minimum standards," he said. In this regard, he called for improvements in the asylum system in Slovenia as well.

The High Commissioner said it was vital that people in need of protection had access to EU territory. He cited the Spanish Canary Islands in the Atlantic and Italy's Lampedusa Island in the Mediteranean as examples of "impeccable cooperation" between UNHCR, concerned governments and NGOs in managing difficult mixed population movements.

During his one-day visit, Guterres held talks with President Danilo Türk, Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, Interior Minister Dragutin Mate and National Assembly Vice-President Vasja Klavora, with whom he launched a Slovenian version of the Handbook for Parliamentarians on Statelessness and Nationality. He also met refugee NGOs and spoke with asylum seekers.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Ljubljana, Slovenia

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UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

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.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

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.

Drifting Towards Italy

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

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