As thousands risk their lives at sea to reach Europe, UNHCR calls for a broad joint response to deal with the challenge
LAS PALMAS, Spain, May 24 (UNHCR) - The Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, is visiting the Canary Islands where in recent weeks, hundreds of people have arrived after undertaking a perilous sea journey from North Africa. Earlier in Madrid, she called for a broad, joint response to deal with the challenges of mixed, maritime, migratory flows.
"The rising death toll at sea has put the issue of irregular migration on the international agenda," Feller said Wednesday. "Thousands of lives have been lost over the last decade. But even as illegal migration has become more difficult, African migrants keep trying to reach Europe, taking greater risks."
Those landing in the Canary Islands archipelago are in various states of dehydration and hypothermia after surviving their hazardous journey. So far this year, 7,400 people have arrived by boat in the Canaries.
After meeting local authorities, Feller visited the Barranco Seco reception centre, which houses some 200 recent arrivals, and La Isleta military barracks, which is being used as emergency accommodation for 812 arrivals. Most of the arrivals are from Central and sub-Saharan Africa and made the dangerous 500 mile journey from the African coast crammed in tiny, open fishing boats known as cayucos.
The Spanish authorities had been responsive to the large, migratory inflow of people and had been efficient in ensuring those in need of protection had access to the asylum procedure, said Feller.
People trying to reach Europe are doing so for a variety of reasons. Although the majority tend to be economic migrants, a proportion of those travelling across the Mediterranean - and inevitably those dying in the attempt - are refugees.
Over the last decade, thousands of people, including migrants, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking, have died attempting to reach southern Europe from North Africa.
On Tuesday, opening a conference in Madrid on maritime interception and rescue at sea in the Mediterranean, Feller called for a broad collaborative response to the challenges posed by mixed flows of migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups.
"Rarely a week goes by without some news of an unseaworthy boat that has sunk with its passengers on board, dead bodies being washed ashore on the holiday beaches of southern Europe, and people who have paid huge sums of money to human smugglers whose last concern is the welfare of their clients," she said.
"We also know that some of the people in transit across the Mediterranean are the victims of human traffickers - women and children who, eve if they reach land safely, will be condemned to more exploitation and abuse," she added.
In any mixed movement, there are groups of people moving together but for quite different reasons. "UNHCR has a contribution to make to a better management of a problem where it involves persons within our mandate responsibilities," Feller said.
The Madrid conference, organised by UNHCR with funding from the European Union and the hospitality of the Spanish government, brought together representatives from Mediterranean states, the EU and partner organisations, in order to foster greater understanding of the dynamics of maritime movements and to promote practical and effective cooperation to respond to the humanitarian and protection dimensions of irregular migration.
Last week, Feller was in Mauritania, where she met the authorities, and separately, with UNHCR representatives of concerned offices in the region, to discuss how and where UNHCR can contribute to better management of the problem.
By Francesca Fontanini in the Canary Islands