As states increase border controls, UNHCR calls for sensitivity for those fleeing persecution

Briefing Notes, 7 January 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 January 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

We are concerned whenever states propose measures that aim at preventing irregular migrants from entering their territory without simultaneously putting concrete guarantees in place for those seeking international protection. We have received many queries concerning recent statements made by Greece about the possibility of building a 12 km fence along its side of the border with Turkey in the Evros region.

While every State has the right to control its borders, it is clear that among the many people crossing Turkey toward the European Union, there are a significant number who are fleeing violence and persecution. Establishing border control mechanisms which are sensitive to the needs of people seeking protection is therefore vital.

Building fences rarely solves the underlying problem of migratory pressures, including those of persons seeking protection. As with other measures which indiscriminately block arrivals, there is a risk that those seeking asylum will resort to even riskier routes to safety a reason why large numbers of asylum-seekers today find themselves in the hands of people-smuggling rings.

The problem in Greece is compounded by the fact that the asylum system is still not functioning despite ongoing reform efforts. UNHCR is working with government partners to establish a fair process for assessing the claims of asylum seekers. At present, many thousands of asylum-seekers are living in limbo in Greece.

In Turkey, the Government continues to implement a geographic limitation to the 1951 Convention, thereby taking responsibility for granting asylum only to refugees who come from European countries. However, most asylum-seekers in Turkey originate from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Claims of asylum seekers of non-European origin in Turkey are assessed by UNHCR. Those who are found to be refugees are permitted to remain, pending resettlement to a third country. However, the number of resettlement places falls short of the needs and at present there are approximately 10,000 refugees awaiting resettlement from Turkey. UNHCR is encouraging more countries, and in particular EU Member States, to show solidarity with Turkey by participating in the resettlement effort.

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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.

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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.

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