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

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.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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

Chad Mission Photo Gallery

Chad Mission Photo Gallery

From the corners of the globe, the displaced converge in northern France

Hundreds of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have created a number of makeshift camps in northern France. Drawn from a diverse range of countries, the men are hoping that from France they will be able to enter the United Kingdom.

Locals call it, "The Jungle" - a squalid warren of shanties made out of cardboard, plywood and bits of plastic that has mushroomed among the sand dunes and brambles outside Calais. Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from such faraway places as Afghanistan, Somalia and Vietnam have traveled for months and over rough terrain to camp out and eventually cross the 34-kilometre stretch of sea that separates Calais from England's White Cliffs of Dover.

Some have family in the UK or have heard that it is easy to get a good job there. Others have been forced to flee their countries because of political, religious or ethnic persecution, and may be entitled to refugee status.

Since early June, the UN refugee agency and its local partner, France Terre d'Asile, have been present in Calais, informing and counselling hundreds of people about asylum systems and procedures in France and the UK.

From the corners of the globe, the displaced converge in northern France

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

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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.
Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang ViolencePlay video

Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang Violence

Tens of thousands of people make their way to Mexico on mixed migration routes every year. They include victims of gang violence who need protection.
Out in the Cold in CalaisPlay video

Out in the Cold in Calais

Despite the sub-zero temperatures, migrants and asylum-seekers continue to flock to the northern French port of Calais in a bid to reach the United Kingdom across the English Channel. Some are from conflict zones and UNHCR wants to make sure they have access to asylum procedures.