Cooperation between states in the Americas vital to protect refugees in migration flows

News Stories, 20 November 2009

© UNHCR/B. Heger
Crossing borders. UNHCR has been discussing the protection of refugees in mixed migration flows at a conference it co-organized in Costa Rica.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, November 20 (UNHCR) Cooperation between states is essential to address the joint challenge of refugee protection and migration in the Americas, the UN refugee agency's top protection official told delegates at the opening here of a regional conference on the issue.

UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller, addressing representatives of 20 countries in North and South America on Thursday, stressed that migrants and refugees were not the responsibility of just one organization, one country or one region, but the shared concern of all those seeking to protect the human rights of people on the move.

The two-day conference, which follows regional meetings in Yemen and Senegal over the past 18 months, was convened to address the issue of mixed migration flows in the Americas, principally from south to north.

The delegates are also looking at ways to implement UNHCR's 10-Point Plan of Action, which was developed to help governments protect refugees within increasingly complex population flows.

Millions of people are on the move around the world. Some seek better economic opportunities or to be reunited with family. Refugees have no choice, they flee their homelands to escape violence or persecution. But, increasingly, migrants and refugees travel together, sometimes resorting to the services of traffickers and smugglers.

The issue is of special relevance in the Americas, where there is a long tradition of migration and asylum. The American continent is home to some 800,000 refugees, or about one in 12 of the world's total refugee population.

Most migration in the region is intra-continental from South America to the United States and Canada although there has also been an increase in the number of people coming from other continents. Nations in the Caribbean and Central America, including Mexico, now face huge challenges as countries of transit. The numbers are difficult to ascertain: an estimated 500,000 people try to make their way every year to the United States via Mexico.

Not everybody on the move is vulnerable or in need of international protection, but all have fundamental human rights. Refugees have specific rights under international law and one of the biggest challenges for receiving countries is to be able to quickly identify refugees within mixed migration flows.

After Thursday's opening, delegates at the Costa Rica conference discussed ways of identifying and providing appropriate support to the most vulnerable people caught in mixed migration flows, such as unaccompanied minors, victims of human trafficking and pregnant women. They also debated the establishment of reception facilities, including shelter and health.

Feller said the main concerns for UNHCR were a lack of basic reception facilities, denial of entry to a country and the automatic and sometimes prolonged detention of people in migration flows, including refugees. She encouraged countries in North and South America to build on their national laws and good practices and pledged UNHCR's continued support.

The two-day conference is being hosted by the government of Costa Rica and jointly organized by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organization for American States (OAS), with the support of several other international organizations, including the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By Marie-Helene Verney in San Jose, Costa Rica

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UNHCR country pages

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

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.

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.

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

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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Syrian Refugees: Desperate in Lampedusa

In the past year, more than 13,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy's Lampedusa Island on irregular migration routes. Many have died attempting the crossing. Young men from sub-Saharan Africa mix with families from Syria. All share the same dream - starting afresh in the security and stability of Europe.
Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang ViolencePlay video

Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang Violence

Tens of thousands of people make their way to Mexico on mixed migration routes every year. They include victims of gang violence who need protection.
Dialogue on Asylum & MigrationPlay video

Dialogue on Asylum & Migration

Delegates from about 70 nations recently met in Geneva and grappled with the complex issue of how to identify and better protect refugees who travel alongside irregular migrants on dangerous journeys in search of safety.