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Q&A: Speaking from experience

News Stories, 18 January 2008

© Courtesy of I.Rasheed
Ibrahim Rasheed relaxes in a park.

MADRID, January 18 (UNHCR) Ibrahim Rasheed works in Madrid City Hall, where he advises young immigrants including refugees and asylum seekers. He's very well qualified for the job. Ten years ago, Rasheed risked all in a long and dangerous voyage from his native Ghana to try and reach Canada by land, sea and air routes. He was en route to Costa Rica when his plane transited in Madrid; Rasheed suddenly decided to get off the plane and seek asylum. He does not advise others to follow his example, but believes refugees should be given help and advice if they reach places like Spain. External Relations Officer Francesca Fontanini recently spoke to him. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you want to go to the West?

This might sound like a film plot, but it is a true story. When I was 14, I and a group of nine friends decided to try and make it from Ghana to Canada by land, sea and air routes. We were not motivated by poverty but by a spirit of adventure and discovery, like Christopher Colombus. Young people often think of doing something that seems impossible and, to us, Europe and North America seemed like promised lands where the streets were paved with gold and money grew on trees.

Tell us a bit more about the journey.

It began in 1998. We left Accra in Ghana and made our way to Libya via Lomé [Togo], Benin, Niger, Mali and Algeria. We had many adventures and new experiences while crossing the desert, where we saw dead bodies and many human skeletons. We were also robbed at one stage. Then we took a boat to Egypt before making our way overland to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where we stayed some time to make a bit of money for the next stage of the journey.

Some [three] of our group en route [from sunstroke or disease], but the rest of us eventually carried on to Turkey and boarded a flight for Larnaca in Cyprus. We decided to split up and head separately for Costa Rica with Canada as our ultimate goal. We took flights transiting through different countries in Europe.... When it was my turn, I flew to Madrid and then decided that I didn't want to go any further after all. [Rashid at first pretended to be a refugee from Sierra Leone and later was given permanent residency and a Spanish passport.]

How did you end up working in Madrid for the municipality?

After my experiences during the journey, I decided that I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained to help young migrants [aged under 18 years old] arriving in Spain and Madrid, both economic migrants and asylum seekers. I specifically wanted to tell them that they needed to pray and to be patient one day everything will be okay.

I also tell these young people to take advantage of the opportunities here. I advise them to study hard so that they can build a better future. And I tell them to one day go back to Africa to help build and develop the continent.

What kinds of things do young refugees seek your advice on?

They usually ask me about the asylum seeking process and about life in Spain in general.

UNHCR believes this century will be marked by large displacements of people. Why do you think more people are on the move?

I personally think it's due to a combination of capitalism, globalization and climate change, which are provoking wars, floods, hunger and disease in many parts of the planet?

Do you think Spain has a good asylum policy?

I think that although Spain has legislation and rights concerning asylum seekers, these are not always followed properly or respected. Sometimes, we confuse asylum seekers with economic migrants.

I think it is possible for the government to differentiate between refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers by contracting and training more link workers and respecting the laws and new policies on how to deal with the thousands of migrants turning up on the Mediterranean coast every day.

Would you like one day to return to Africa?

One of my top plans is to go to Ghana or elsewhere in Africa and tell young and old people alike not to risk their lives crossing deserts and seas to reach Europe. I'd also like to help open up education and employment opportunities so that Ghanians and other Africans can stay at home and use local resources to invest, help others and develop the continent. As the saying goes: "There's no place like home."




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 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

Sweden: Mahmoud's EscapePlay video

Sweden: Mahmoud's Escape

Mahmoud was one of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have sought safety in Egypt since the conflict in his homeland began three years ago. The nine-year-old was so desperate to attend school that he risked his life to get to Europe. He was stopped and sent back to Egypt but is now making a fresh start in Sweden.
Bulgaria: Refugee FrustrationPlay video

Bulgaria: Refugee Frustration

More and more Syrian refugees are trying to reach Europe. But those making their way to Bulgaria are finding a country ill-equipped to cope with a sudden influx. For many of the refugees, it is proving to be a tough and painful experience.
Syrian Refugees: Stranded in MilanPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Stranded in Milan

Growing numbers of Syrians have been trying to reach Europe after fleeing their war-torn country. In the northern Italian commercial and financial centre of Milan, a refugee shelter was created in a day after large numbers of Syrian families were found camping in front of the Milan Central railway station. As they wait, they are glad to at least be protected from the cold winter.