UNHCR team still awaiting access to persons of concern in Morocco

News Stories, 19 October 2005

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UNHCR says it has received disturbing reports that registered asylum seekers have been relocated to desert sites close to the borders in southern and eastern Morocco, but that a special team sent on 11 October has still not been permitted to travel outside the capital Rabat.

GENEVA, October 19 (UNHCR) A senior UN refugee agency team sent to Morocco on October 11 is still awaiting government permission to gain access to people of concern to the agency who are reportedly being held in various parts of the country.

Although no firm figures are available, the agency has evidence that dozens of sub-Saharan Africans holding UNHCR documentation have been picked up by Moroccan authorities in a crackdown on irregular migration, said Ekber Menemencioglu, Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Central Asia, South West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

"UNHCR reiterates that these persons must not be refouled or forcibly returned to a country where they may face persecution and we have repeatedly sought access to them, so far in vain," Menemencioglu said.

He noted that the team in the Moroccan capital Rabat has been interviewing people who manage to get to UNHCR's office there.

UNHCR recognizes the legitimate right of governments to manage irregular migration, but notes that within such large flows there are often people fleeing persecution and violence who deserve access to proper asylum procedures, Menemencioglu said. UNHCR strongly urges the Moroccan authorities to respect international protection principles, particularly against refoulement, and to treat everyone humanely, he added.

In addition to Morocco, UNHCR has sent missions over the past three weeks to the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, and to the Canary Islands. High Commissioner António Guterres also called for a meeting of the Geneva Migration Group, whose members include the heads of six international organizations.

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Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Despite considerable dangers, migrants seeking a better future and refugees fleeing war and persecution continue to board flimsy boats and set off across the high seas. One of the main routes into Europe runs from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands.

Before 2006, most irregular migrants taking this route used small vessels called pateras, which can carry up to 20 people. They left mostly from Morocco and the Western Sahara on the half-day journey. The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.

Although only a small proportion of the almost 32,000 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006 applied for asylum, the number has gone up. More than 500 people applied for asylum in 2007, compared with 359 the year before. This came at a time when the overall number of arrivals by sea went down by 75 percent during 2007.

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands