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.





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.


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

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.


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

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 Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

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

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."
Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.