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Mediterranean Sea arrivals: UNHCR calls for access to protection

Briefing notes

Mediterranean Sea arrivals: UNHCR calls for access to protection

9 January 2009

The Ministers of Interior of Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta are due to meet in Rome on Tuesday, 13 January, to discuss the problem of irregular migrants arriving by sea. UNHCR understands that this question may also be discussed at the informal meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in Prague on 15 January. In this context, UNHCR appeals to EU Member States to ensure that people seeking asylum have access to territory and to fair procedures for examining their claims.

During 2008, out of a total estimated figure of more than 67,000 people crossing to Europe by sea, some 38,000 persons arrived in Italy and Malta alone, mostly after transiting through Libya. The vast majority applied for asylum, and more than half of those claiming asylum were found to be in need of international protection. With few opportunities to enter the EU by regular means, thousands of people threatened by persecution and serious human rights violations in their home countries have no choice but to take the dangerous sea route. This highlights the vital need to ensure that State agreements and measures to tighten borders do not block access to safety for those seeking protection in the EU.

Attention has recently focused on large numbers of persons landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa. UNHCR appreciates the efforts made by States along the Mediterranean to rescue people in distress at sea. We also recognize that boat arrivals put significant strains on the resources of those countries. People seeking asylum must nevertheless be allowed to disembark in a safe place, where they can receive information about their rights and have a genuine opportunity to file an asylum application which will be considered in a fair procedure. Sending refugees back to countries where they cannot enjoy effective protection could violate Member States' international obligations to refrain from refoulement.

Available data shows many boat arrivals are persons originating from Somalia and Eritrea. According to preliminary figures for 2008, about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea applied for asylum, and around 50 per cent of them were granted refugee status or protection on other humanitarian grounds. Nearly all people who arrived irregularly by sea in Malta applied for asylum and some 60 percent were recognized as being in need of international protection. This shows that the Mediterranean Sea is indeed an "asylum route" for many people fleeing violence and persecution.