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An odyssey of fear: African asylum seekers tell their stories

News Stories, 19 February 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus, 19 Feb. (UNHCR) Christophe* was so desperate to leave his troubled homeland that he was willing to take almost any risk to find sanctuary and the chance of a better future in western Europe.

"If in your house there is fire, you will jump; you won't think how high the building is. The risk is big, but you take it in order to save your life," said the Côte d'Ivoire native, who paid people smugglers US$3,000 for passage to France but ended up here in Cyprus.

Christophe, who last year applied for protection in Cyprus because he feared persecution back home, was smuggled aboard a cargo ship in the Ivorian port of San Pedro and was at sea for two months with seven other compatriots. "I didn't see the light of the sun for so long," he said, adding that they lived on water and meagre food rations provided by the smugglers.

Their case is typical. So far this year, an estimated 100,000 people have crammed onto rickety vessels or stowed away on larger vessels in the hope of reaching Europe, either directly or through islands like the Canaries in the Atlantic or Lampedusa and Cyprus in the Mediterranean. After Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, it became more of a magnet for illegal migrants and asylum seekers en route to continental Europe.

The voyage is fraught with danger and some humanitarian agencies believe that almost a third of those risking the trip perish en route. Most of the boat people are regarded as economic migrants, but they include people of concern to UNHCR like Christophe and Moroccan asylum seeker Yassine.

As the problem of illegal migration from Africa to Europe rises, some governments are treating all arrivals in the same way. This is a concern to UNHCR, which has put a priority on trying to help governments disentangle genuine refugees from ordinary migrants.

"We are trying to pioneer something called the 10-point plan, which we hope states will see as a positive contribution by UNHCR to their management of this mixed migration problem. The plan includes procedures to distinguish quite quickly between the different groups and to channel each group into an appropriate response mechanism," Erika Feller, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, said in Geneva last week.

Yassine* arrived in Cyprus and asked for asylum in November 2005 after a 10-day trek through the desert, several car journeys and a sea voyage from Egypt to Cyprus. He claimed he was in danger from the authorities because of his membership of a pacifist Islamic movement in his native Morocco.

"I was hiding in a big ship which was carrying some goods. I was told that I was going to Italy. It was after spending some time in the island that I realised I was in Cyprus," said Yassine, who said he had to leave Morocco in such a rush that he did not even have time to pick up his passport.

Like Christophe, he had hoped to reach mainland Europe. But more and more asylum seekers are ending up in Cyprus, which adopted a national refugee law in 2000 and joined the European Union in May 2004. At the end of last year, there were 12, 490 foreigners applying through the government for asylum.

UNHCR in Nicosia tries to ensure that they have access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure and that their rights are being respected. The refugee agency's work informing the asylum seekers about their rights and obligations is an essential factor in ensuring effective protection.

Ultimately, a few of those arriving here would like to move on to other, larger EU countries, such as France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. For many, it will be a rude awakening because of exploitation, xenophobia and bureaucratic tape.

As the problem of irregular migration grows, UNHCR believes that the challenge for European countries on main line migration routes will be to preserve access to asylum procedures while taking steps to curb rising intolerance and discrimination towards refugees and asylum seekers in their own backyard.

By Maria Avraamidou in Nicosia, Cyprus

* Names have been changed for protection reasons.

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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.

Asylum-Seekers

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.

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 makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

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

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The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.