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Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - Trafficking in human lives

Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - Trafficking in human lives
Refugees (101, III - 1995)

1 September 1995
Refugees and illegal migrants trying to enter Western Europe via the CIS and Central Europe are falling prey to unscrupulous people smugglers. As well as paying large sums of money, some end up paying with their lives.

Refugees and illegal migrants trying to enter Western Europe via the CIS and Central Europe are falling prey to unscrupulous people smugglers. As well as paying large sums of money, some end up paying with their lives.

By Fernando del Mundo

The grisly sight of 18 decomposing bodies found locked inside a refrigerated truck trailer in mid-July remains fresh in the mind of Ditlev Nordgaard. "It was a terrible tragedy," recalls Nordgaard, UNHCR deputy representative in Budapest. "You could hardly recognize the faces."

The 18 were all found suffocated in the trailer, which was locked from the outside. They were among 37 Sri Lankans - the other 19 were in another trailer - who paid $800 each to a Bulgarian trucker to bring them to Germany and Italy, two of the more popular destinations in Western Europe for both illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. Police say tragedy struck when the ventilation system broke down in one vehicle just after it set out from Bulgaria.

On the outskirts of Gyor, in western Hungary, the 19 passengers in the second truck trailer were told they were in Germany and were disembarked. When they found out that they were still in Hungary, they returned to the point of disembarkation to find police investigating the deaths of the 18 travellers inside the other locked trailer. Residents had called police, complaining of a bad smell and flies buzzing around the trailer.

The survivors later told Nordgaard that they were asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka, which has been torn apart by ethnic conflict. Some of them recounted that they had answered an advertisement in a newspaper in Colombo by an agency that specialized in arranging entry into Western Europe.

Most had sold all of their possessions in Sri Lanka just to pay for the trip. Many of them were taken to Moscow, where they spent from one to two years illegally working in bars and hotels. Saving more money, they moved on to Ukraine, then Moldova, finally ending up in Romania, where the tragic truck journey to Germany was organized.

The 19 survivors applied for asylum in Hungary after the deaths in the trailer were discovered. They were interviewed to determine eligibility. Seven said they wanted to be sent home. All of the asylum applications were later rejected, including three cases that received careful extra scrutiny. In the end, all of them were sent back to Sri Lanka. The truck owner and drivers have in the meantime been arrested and are facing prosecution.

The incident in Hungary illustrates the risks that illegal aliens and asylum-seekers, particularly those from the Third World, are willing to take to flee their homelands. Their desire to escape either poverty or persecution has fuelled a lucrative, if pernicious, trafficking in human lives. Countries in Western Europe have been attempting to eliminate the practice. Their governments have tightened immigration laws, imposed stiff penalties on convicted human smugglers, and increased border patrols. Still, these efforts have not produced the desired results. It is practically impossible to control immense borders.

Because their paths often cross, the asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants often find the doors slammed in their faces. Asylum-seekers are often at a disadvantage.

"The possibilities for legal migration into Western Europe are extremely limited," said Katherine Cain, desk officer at UNHCR's Europe Bureau. "There is practically no other way to get in. For many, the only recourse is to become an illegal." Cain said many economic migrants resort to claiming asylum to legitimize their stay, clogging up the system and making it difficult for bona fide asylum-seekers to gain recognition.

Walter Citti, the head of the Information Centre for Immigrants in the Italian city of Trieste, cited Bosnians as an example. Italy treats refugees from the former Yugoslavia liberally, requiring only that they produce a letter of sponsorship by an Italian citizen.

"Although at obvious risk, Bosnians are the ones who usually are refouled at the border by police," Citti says. Bosnians often hastily leave their country and end up at the frontier without the required letter of sponsorship.

"Croats and Serbs are easily able to get sponsors in Italy because of the large Croat and Serb communities in Italy," says Citti. "The Italian Ministry of Interior has repeatedly reminded border police of the intent to accept people at risk from the former Yugoslavia. Every effort is made to implement this, but the problem is that we do not have enough trained people to do this," says Citti.

In general, Western Europe has been generous to UNHCR's appeal to keep doors open to persons fleeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Compounding the problems of asylum-seekers from ex-Yugoslavia are the large numbers of Albanians arriving in Italy - up to 100 per day. Most are peasants looking for jobs. Many present forged passports from the former Yugoslavia. The search for better opportunities by Albanians has led to exploitation by criminal gangs and Mafia-style syndicates.

Following a massive tide of Albanian arrivals in Italy and Greece in 1991, UNHCR launched a mass information programme broadcast on Radio Tirana aimed at convincing people to stay home. Each 30-minute programme, broadcast twice, provides Albanians with basic information on travel, migration and asylum policies, human rights and discrimination.

Letters from listeners are read on the programme, most of them seeking information on immigrant relatives. Accounts have also been aired of young women lured abroad by offers of jobs and later driven into prostitution. In addition, television documentaries are made and pamphlets on migration are distributed.

Giuseppe de Vincentis, of UNHCR's Mass Information Section, says a similar programme is aired in the former Soviet Union by Radio Ostankino in Moscow. The programme also covers such subjects as mass population displacements involving Russians and Third World peoples.

Many Third World asylum-seekers, like the Sri Lankans who joined the ill-fated overland trip to Hungary in July, spend time in Russia. They then work their way to central Europe. Asians, Africans and East European illegal immigrants converge here looking for for an opportunity to cross into the West.

Another major stepping stone to Europe is through the Baltic states. On 1 August, a Norwegian freighter plucked 75 people, including men, women and children, from four rubber rafts floating in the Baltic Sea near the German island of Ruegen. Most were Afghans, except for four or five Sri Lankans. Days later, authorities were still trying to determine how they got to the region. The group was brought to the Danish port of Fredericia, where all applied for asylum.

Jacob Gammelgaard, of the Danish Refugee Council, noted that this was not the first such incident to occur in Denmark. "There is quite a lot of human smuggling involved, but the extent this is used to gain entry into Denmark is not known," he said. Police normally are reticent on the subject in a bid to show they are in control, he added.

The increasing number of boat people reaching the Nordic countries has prompted governments to react. Denmark has raised the penalty for the smuggling of illegal immigrants to Denmark to two years imprisonment.

Naval patrols have been intensified and in some Nordic countries, orders have been issued for border authorities to return potential illegal entrants to the Baltic states. "The general tendency is the tightening of asylum policies," says Gammelgaard.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (1995)