UNHCR project to shed light on Africa-Europe transit migration

News Stories, 1 February 2005

© UNHCR/L.Boldrini
European states reacted strongly in the wake of the controversial Cap Anamur boat incident of June 2004.

GENEVA, Feb 1 (UNHCR) The phenomenon of African migration into Europe is one of the hot topics often debated in the European media. But while the headlines focus on illegal migrants and the desperate means they resort to in order to reach Europe's shores, very little attention has been paid to refugees who also risk their lives along the way.

This mixed flow of people arriving in Europe raises new challenges in terms of refugee protection. In recent years, the UN refugee agency has become increasingly concerned that, in their effort to combat illegal migration, European Union countries tend to overlook the needs of the refugees mixed in with the illegal migrants.

It has been UNHCR's view for several years that the issue of mixed migration must be urgently addressed and that only a multilateral approach to the problem is likely to bring results. It is a complex issue, one which cannot be looked at only from the point of view of European immigration laws indeed there is a growing realisation within the EU that it is not realistic to tackle the problem by hoping to intercept everyone who reaches Europe illegally.

Also in question is the situation in the countries of origin, characterised by the lack of development and opportunities in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the burden put on North African states, which are being used as transit routes by thousands on their way to Europe.

In cooperation with the European Commission, UNHCR is launching a one-year project to gather essential information about the phenomenon of transit migration through North Africa into Europe.

"This project is an important and in many ways pioneering initiative for the refugee agency," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters on Tuesday in Geneva. "It is a first step towards understanding the link between transit migration and refugees and creating a protection space for asylum seekers while they are in transit."

Because the refugee dimension of transit migration has so far been largely ignored, comparatively little is known about the number of potential refugees mixed in with illegal migrants trying to reach Europe. The most pressing need is therefore for clear and accurate information, and UNHCR is planning a series of activities over the next few months to gather facts.

The refugee agency will seek testimony from asylum seekers in southern European nations like Italy, Spain and Malta that are first ports of call inside Europe for thousands of people transiting from Africa. UNHCR will also seek to talk to asylum seekers and migrants in North Africa, with interviews already planned in Mauritania.

Another axis of the project is to increase dialogue on refugee issues in North Africa, both at the national and regional level, in order to develop basic protection mechanisms for asylum seekers and potential refugees. Many North African nations have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but need to develop a national framework to create an asylum space in the region. The focus will be on a multilateral approach and sharing of information in the region, as well as with Europe and international organisations.

The third part of the project will look into the question of how to manage the protection of asylum seekers and potential refugees on the high seas. In the vast majority of cases, the trip from Africa to Europe involves a sea crossing, often organised by illegal traffickers, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

"Every year, an unknown number of people die on the trip from Africa to Europe," Pagonis said. "More information is urgently needed to help all those concerned develop solutions to put an end to this tragic waste of human lives."

The question of interception of boats on the high seas is difficult and often neglected, one that raises concerns about which state is responsible for the asylum seekers who might be onboard. In this regard too, UNHCR will be advocating a multilateral approach involving the EU, countries of transit and the relevant international organisations.

The project, which will end in December 2005, is funded to the tune of almost 1 million euros by the European Union and the Dutch government.



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.

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

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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