UNHCR urges EU and border agency to ensure access to asylum procedures

News Stories, 10 December 2010

© UNHCR/M.Edström
A group of new arrivals from Africa in a Malta detention centre. Malta, and other European destinations in the Mediterranean, has seen a drastic reduction in arrivals by sea over the past year or two.

GENEVA, December 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday urged European Union (EU) member states and a special EU border agency to ensure that asylum in Europe is not being threatened in the drive for tighter policing of the continent's external borders.

"Our concern is that in its efforts to stem illegal migration, Europe should not forget that among those seeking to enter the EU are people who need international protection and are at risk of their lives," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva.

Europe is a destination for both migrants and asylum-seekers. The two have different goals and needs. Migrants may be seeking economic opportunities, refugees are people fleeing persecution or violence they cannot return home if things don't work out.

It is this latter group that UNHCR is mandated to be concerned about. The refugee agency wants EU states and their external border agency, FRONTEX, to pay more attention to asylum-seekers.

Mahecic said evidence of how difficult it has become for people seeking protection in Europe can be seen in the data on arrivals by sea in the central Mediterranean. Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta have all seen drastic reductions in arrivals by sea over the past year or two, almost certainly as a result of tighter border controls, joint patrols and push-backs at sea.

UNHCR estimates that some 8,800 people arrived by sea in the first 10 months of this year, compared to 32,000 in the same period in 2009 a 72.5 per cent decrease. Close to two thirds of the 2010 sea arrivals have been in Greece, while a third were in Italy, and the rest in Malta and Cyprus.

"The stemming of sea arrivals is not solving the problem but shifting it elsewhere," Mahecic stressed. "This can be seen in the corresponding sharp rise there has been in overland arrivals in the Evros region of Greece. Evros recorded 38,992 arrivals in the first 10 months of this year compared to 7,574 in the same period in 2009 a 415 per cent increase," he added.

UNHCR has consistently stated its concerns about the humanitarian situation for new arrivals in Greece, and the need for EU support to Greece in bringing its asylum system up to standard. An asylum-seeker arriving in Greece currently has a negligible chance of having his or her claim to refugee status properly assessed.

Many of those arriving in Greece are detained in extremely difficult conditions, among them unaccompanied children and other vulnerable individuals. Most have neither access to legal help nor to interpretation.

Worldwide, the factors that cause people to become refugees are undiminished. High Commissioner Guterres appealed again this week, in a speech to delegates at the annual High Commissioner's Dialogue in Geneva, for better burden-sharing arrangements with poor countries, which provide refuge for four out of every five of the world's refugees.

UNHCR recognizes the need for border management, but this must be protection-sensitive. Border control policies that indiscriminately block arrivals encourage those seeking asylum to resort to ever riskier and more desperate routes to safety a reason why growing numbers of asylum-seekers today find themselves in the hands of people-smuggling rings.