The United Nations refugee agency today urged European countries to sort out the case of a pair of stowaways who, in an apparent attempt to seek asylum, have been travelling from port to port aboard a cargo ship for more than two weeks.
A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that according to the ship's captain, the two men, who are in their early twenties and believed to be Iraqis, seem to want to claim asylum.
The generally accepted principle in such maritime cases is that stowaway asylum-seekers should be allowed to disembark at the first port of call after their presence has been discovered by the crew, and be given the opportunity to have their claim determined by the relevant authorities, UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville said at a press briefing in Geneva.
If this turns out to be impossible for some reason, he said, subsequent ports visited by the ship should be prepared to take initial responsibility, even if it is eventually decided that the asylum-seeker can or should be moved elsewhere.
"However, it appears that [the two men] may have been prevented from doing so in four different EU countries so far," Mr. Colville said.
The pair apparently boarded the ship on 12 April in Cyprus. Since then, the Panama-registered ship has made calls at ports in Spain, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The supposed asylum-seekers were not permitted to disembark at any of these ports.
"UNHCR is concerned that if the two men are indeed trying to claim asylum from persecution, they should have been able to lodge a claim somewhere by now, and fears that if the pattern is continued they will join earlier unfortunate individuals or even families, known as 'orbit cases,'" Mr. Colville said. The term refers to individuals being bounced from country to country, often with extremely damaging psychological effects.
Mr. Colville noted that after its stop in Amsterdam, the ship was bound for Sweden, Germany and Belgium before heading to the Middle East and Asia.
"UNHCR urges one of the remaining European ports of call to exercise the collective responsibility to allow asylum-seekers access to the asylum procedure," he said, pointing out that European Union countries have recourse to the so-called Dublin Treaty, which aims to avoid orbit cases by allowing nations to resolve among themselves which one should take responsibility.