Boat tragedy off Indian Ocean island highlights dangers of irregular migration

News Stories, 22 May 2012

© CharlesPlatiau/Reuters
General view of the French overseas territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean.

PARIS, France, May 22 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency expressed sadness on Tuesday after at least five people, including three children, drowned when a small motorized boat sank off the French territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean.

Nineteen people were rescued and taken to Mayotte after the vessel foundered on a coral reef Saturday, while another 15 people are missing and feared drowned, according to officials.

"The incident is a further tragic illustration of the dangers faced by people who take desperate measures to escape poverty, conflict and persecution," a UNHCR spokesman said. "As in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the seas around Mayotte are the scene of irregular movements of migrants and refugees searching for a better life or protection from persecution and war," he added.

The small boat hit coral reefs surrounding a lagoon in Mayotte, a French overseas department. It had set sail from Anjouan Island in the neighbouring archipelago nation of the Comoros.

According to the Mayotte authorities, some survivors were left clinging to the half-sunken vessel overnight. They were located on Sunday morning by a group of divers from a local club, who came to their rescue.

The survivors were suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, and some had fractures and other injuries. The French Ministry of Overseas Territories said the 19 rescued survivors were taken to hospital in Mamoudzou, the capital of Mayotte.

A search and rescue operation, involving navy vessels and aircraft, was launched on Sunday. On Monday, the authorities announced that they were calling off the search, after no more survivors had been found. "UNHCR commends the actions of the local search and rescue authorities and of individuals from a local diving club who came to the rescue of the survivors," the spokesman said.

For decades, people have been using small open vessels known as kwassa-kwassa to sail from the Comoros to the more prosperous French territory of Mayotte. Many of these movements take place without the documentation and involve considerable risk to those attempting them. Figures for these irregular movements are not available. Asylum seekers account for a small proportion of these movements and their numbers have been increasing in the last two years.

© UNHCR/Mapping Unit
Comoros and Mayotte Map

Last year, there were some 1,200 applications for asylum in Mayotte, 41 per cent more than in 2010. The largest proportion came from the Comoros Islands (90 per cent), with citizens from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Rwanda accounting for the rest. Last year some 20,000 people, including failed asylum-seekers, were sent back from Mayotte to the Comoros and Madagascar.

UNHCR assists the local authorities and civil society in France, including its overseas territories, to deal with the challenges posed by mixed flows of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. UNHCR insists that any border controls and measures need to ensure that those who seek protection from persecution and conflict are properly identified and have access to procedures to assess their needs.

By William Spindler in Paris, France




UNHCR country pages

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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

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.

Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Braving the cold in Calais

Many boys and young men from places like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and the Sudan end up in the northern French port of Calais after a long and dangerous journey. Some have fled their countries to escape persecution, conflict or forced recruitment, others are looking for a better life. Calais has become a transit point where people smugglers have established networks to take these men to other European countries. Their makeshift encampments are regularly cleared by the French police, and they sleep most nights out in the open. They live in fear of being arrested or deported. UNHCR's office in Calais seeks to provide the young men arriving in the city with information about their options and the asylum system in France.

Braving the cold in Calais

Chad Mission Photo Gallery

Chad Mission Photo Gallery

From Paris With Love, Toys for Syrian Children

Every year, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris organizes a collection of toys from schoolchildren in Paris and, with a little help from UNHCR and other key partners, sends them to refugee children who have lost so much.

The beneficiaries this year were scores of Syrian children living in two camps in Turkey, one of the major host countries for the more than 1.4 million Syrians who have fled their country with or without their families. Most of these traumatized young people have lost their own belongings in the rubble of Syria.

Last week, staff from the museum, UNHCR and the Fédération des Associations d'Anciens du Scoutisme gathered up the toys and packed them into 60 boxes. They were then flown to Turkey by Aviation Sans Frontières (Aviation without Borders) and taken to the kindergarten and nursery schools in Nizip-1 and Nizip-2 camps near the city of Gaziantep.

A gift from more fortunate children in the French capital, the toys brought a ray of sunshine into the lives of some young Syrian refugees and reminded them that their peers in the outside world do care.

These images of the toy distribution were taken by photographer Aytac Akad and UNHCR's Selin Unal.

From Paris With Love, Toys for Syrian Children

UNHCR - IDC video on alternatives to detention for childrenPlay video

UNHCR - IDC video on alternatives to detention for children

The story of a young boy and girl forced to flee their homes, and how detention can be avoided in order to complete their migration status.
Italy: Survivors of the Sea Tragedy Play video

Italy: Survivors of the Sea Tragedy

The 28 survivors of what is expected to be the biggest migration sea tragedy in the Mediterranean finally landed ashore in Sicily, Italy. Earlier in the day the recovered bodies of those who lost their lives where taken to Malta earlier in the day. Around 800 people lost their lives in the tragedy, only 24 bodies were recovered.
Syrian Refugees: Desperate in LampedusaPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Desperate in Lampedusa

In the past year, more than 13,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy's Lampedusa Island on irregular migration routes. Many have died attempting the crossing. Young men from sub-Saharan Africa mix with families from Syria. All share the same dream - starting afresh in the security and stability of Europe.