Thousands rush to apply for asylum before Djibouti expels illegal migrants
DJIBOUTI, Djibouti, Sept 2 (UNHCR) - As a deadline approached for illegal immigrants to leave Djibouti, UNHCR staff have been struggling to cope with an estimated 10,000 people who thronged a transit centre in a bid to apply for asylum and legalise their stay in the tiny Horn of Africa nation.
Citing security and economic concerns, the government of Djibouti had given illegal immigrants up to August 31 to leave the country - a deadline that was, on Sunday, extended by a further two weeks. Illegal immigrants were threatened with deportation if they remained in Djibouti after the deadline.
Last week, potential asylum seekers, estimated at some 4,000 people, were asked to gather at a stadium in the Djibouti capital, Djibouti, ahead of their transfer to the transit centre at Aour-Aoussa, some 120 km away.
But by Saturday, the stadium was teeming with illegal immigrants mixed with asylum seekers, the former anxious to find ways of legalising their stay in Djibouti as the deadline approached for their departure. The large turnout at the stadium quickly outstripped the vehicle capacity arranged by UNHCR, which forced the government to provide additional trucks to transport the waiting crowds at the stadium to the transit centre.
Over the weekend, all activities at the Aour-Aoussa transit centre were completely paralysed by the unruly mobs, preventing the start of food distribution and the registration of genuine asylum seekers.
On Sunday, UNHCR staff met with government officials to discuss the problem. Since then, the authorities have deployed military personnel to man the transit centre's perimeter and police to restore order inside the facility. Other government officials have also been sent to manage the transit location. Hot kitchens have been set up and food distribution started. A health centre is also operational.
By Monday, UN refugee agency staff working with Djibouti government officials had begun to separate the large crowds of people into three distinct groups: asylum seekers with or without attestations; Somalis from areas south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu; and others who are likely to include villagers from the local community.
Government officials have made repeated announcements urging those who are not genuine asylum seekers to leave the transit centre. The government has said it will provide transport for those who need to leave.