More than 200 boat people feared drowned in separate incidents

News Stories, 14 December 2007

© UNHCR/A.Di Loreto
A UNHCR protection officer talks to newly arrived boat people on a beach in Lampedusa, Italy earlier this year.

GENEVA, December 14 (UNHCR) The deadly drama of migrants and refugees dying at sea as they attempt to cross waterways around the world was underscored last week by a number of tragedies which left more than 200 people dead or missing off Turkey, the Canary Islands and Yemen.

Last Saturday, 51 people drowned when a boat carrying irregular migrants from Turkey to Greece sank in rough weather off the Turkish coast close to Seferihisar, a town 50 kilometres south-west of Izmir. Another 35 people are still missing and are presumed to have also drowned.

Last weekend, the Spanish media reported that up to 90 migrants were missing at sea after two separate incidents involving large canoes attempting to reach the Canary Islands from Senegal and from Western Sahara.

In Yemen, where 27,000 people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians, have arrived by boat this year, UNHCR staff reported 31 people drowned or missing between December 5 and last Wednesday. This brought the overall toll in these incidents to 207 in one week.

Tens of thousands of boat people risk their lives each year in the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean and off the coast of West Africa. Many are migrants seeking a better life, but some are also refugees fleeing persecution and violence.

More than 200 participants from governments and non-governmental organizations, plus experts, took part in a two-day UNHCR-organized dialogue in Geneva on the issue. They voiced support for a more coherent, comprehensive and integrated approach to ensure the protection of refugees among migrants now on the move worldwide.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, opening the meeting, said: "We want to promote measures that will save the lives of people who are in distress on the high seas and ensure their safe and timely disembarkation."

At a session devoted to rescue at sea, the UN refugee agency urged participants to do everything possible to avoid tragedies such as those seen recently in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Aden.

UNHCR and its partners, including the International Maritime Organization, are promoting measures that will save those who are in distress on the high seas and ensure their safe and timely disembarkation.

Much of the dialogue, the first in an annual series examining key refugee-related issues in an open and frank spirit, focused on how to better ensure that refugees forced to flee violence and persecution are able to find the protection they need as governments try to grapple with growing migratory movements on their borders. Participants said they appreciated UNHCR's initiative on this issue and welcomed the opportunity to voice and discuss their concerns.

By William Spindler in Geneva

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Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

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The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

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Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

Beyond the Border

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

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