UNHCR and Caribbean partners work to raise awareness of "invisible" refugees

News Stories, 17 February 2011

© REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa
Adrift in the Caribbean. A number of the men, women and children labelled as “illegal” may instead be refugees.

WASHINGTON, DC, United States, February 17 (UNHCR) In the midst of a tropical paradise, an often unnoticed side of global migration plays out across the Caribbean. Migration trends in the region are strikingly similar to high-profile maritime migration and refugee movements reported daily from the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden. Yet the situation in the Caribbean receives far less public attention.

Addressing that fact by raising public awareness, supporting Caribbean governments to establish asylum safeguards, and strengthening partnerships was the objective of a workshop held in Washington last week for UNHCR Honorary Liaisons and Red Cross partners in the Caribbean.

In the small Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba alone, dozens of undocumented migrants of many nationalities arrive each year. Most are likely economic migrants seeking a better life, but some have escaped war or persecution. There is a growing awareness in the Caribbean that a number of the men, women and children labelled as "illegal" may instead be refugees, whose lives could be in jeopardy if deported.

Carolina* fled the decades-long armed conflict in Colombia after receiving death threats from an illegal armed group. She found safety in Aruba, but securing wider protections proved more challenging. Lodging an asylum request before the Aruban authorities was only a first step.

Finding safe shelter, evading sexual exploitation and ensuring daily survival without the right to work is a constant struggle for young, single refugee women like Carolina. Separation from her young daughter, whom she had to leave behind with relatives, also causes her emotional anguish. Assistance from the Aruba Red Cross and UNHCR, as well as local community members, has helped her to survive in unfamiliar surroundings.

"In Aruba, you are either legal or illegal. There is no separate status for asylum-seekers or refugees," said Michel Le Haye of the Aruba Red Cross. "If you are illegal, you are deported or detained. There's no money, job, health care or legal assistance for refugees, who may be killed if forced to return to their country.

"In the past, we have had several sloops full of desperate people arrive off our shores; sometimes people drown, survivors are rescued at sea by the coastguard but may be arrested for lack of papers. Other undocumented people arrive by air. The government, including the coastguard and immigration staff, need more training to identify refugees. We also need to sensitize the public on the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee fleeing conflict or persecution," said La Haye.

As interim director of the Aruba Red Cross, La Haye is well positioned to help ensure that vulnerable migrants, regardless of their legal status, receive food, water, clothing and other life-saving assistance. He has turned to UNHCR for additional financial aid for shelter and other needs for refugees, when needed. His goal is to work in partnership with the government, UNHCR and other organizations to ensure that all migrants arriving in Aruba are treated humanely, and those who fear persecution are protected.

Also participating in the workshop were representatives of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) from Geneva and from Trinidad and Tobago. UNHCR is exploring ways to strengthen partnership in the Caribbean with IFRC on mixed migration.

Like Carolina who fled from Colombia to Aruba, many asylum-seekers face similar vulnerabilities throughout the Caribbean. Without asylum safeguards, most would likely be turned away and sent back to serious harm. UNHCR's partnership network aims to make the plight of an "invisible" group more visible by supporting Caribbean governments and societies to improve responses.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Lilli Tnaib in Washington, DC, United States





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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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Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

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The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

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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.

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