UNHCR urges EU and border agency to ensure access to asylum procedures

News Stories, 10 December 2010

© UNHCR/M.Edström
A group of new arrivals from Africa in a Malta detention centre. Malta, and other European destinations in the Mediterranean, has seen a drastic reduction in arrivals by sea over the past year or two.

GENEVA, December 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday urged European Union (EU) member states and a special EU border agency to ensure that asylum in Europe is not being threatened in the drive for tighter policing of the continent's external borders.

"Our concern is that in its efforts to stem illegal migration, Europe should not forget that among those seeking to enter the EU are people who need international protection and are at risk of their lives," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva.

Europe is a destination for both migrants and asylum-seekers. The two have different goals and needs. Migrants may be seeking economic opportunities, refugees are people fleeing persecution or violence they cannot return home if things don't work out.

It is this latter group that UNHCR is mandated to be concerned about. The refugee agency wants EU states and their external border agency, FRONTEX, to pay more attention to asylum-seekers.

Mahecic said evidence of how difficult it has become for people seeking protection in Europe can be seen in the data on arrivals by sea in the central Mediterranean. Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta have all seen drastic reductions in arrivals by sea over the past year or two, almost certainly as a result of tighter border controls, joint patrols and push-backs at sea.

UNHCR estimates that some 8,800 people arrived by sea in the first 10 months of this year, compared to 32,000 in the same period in 2009 a 72.5 per cent decrease. Close to two thirds of the 2010 sea arrivals have been in Greece, while a third were in Italy, and the rest in Malta and Cyprus.

"The stemming of sea arrivals is not solving the problem but shifting it elsewhere," Mahecic stressed. "This can be seen in the corresponding sharp rise there has been in overland arrivals in the Evros region of Greece. Evros recorded 38,992 arrivals in the first 10 months of this year compared to 7,574 in the same period in 2009 a 415 per cent increase," he added.

UNHCR has consistently stated its concerns about the humanitarian situation for new arrivals in Greece, and the need for EU support to Greece in bringing its asylum system up to standard. An asylum-seeker arriving in Greece currently has a negligible chance of having his or her claim to refugee status properly assessed.

Many of those arriving in Greece are detained in extremely difficult conditions, among them unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals. Most have neither access to legal help nor to interpretation.

Worldwide, the factors that cause people to become refugees are undiminished. High Commissioner Guterres appealed again this week, in a speech to delegates at the annual High Commissioner's Dialogue in Geneva, for better burden-sharing arrangements with poor countries, which provide refuge for four out of every five of the world's refugees.

UNHCR recognizes the need for border management, but this must be protection-sensitive. Border control policies that indiscriminately block arrivals encourage those seeking asylum to resort to ever riskier and more desperate routes to safety a reason why growing numbers of asylum-seekers today find themselves in the hands of people-smuggling rings.

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Statistics

Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

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

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Mixed Migration

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

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Asylum-Seekers

UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

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

Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

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