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

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.

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

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

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

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