Djibouti: UN agency struggles to manage thousands of asylum seekers

2 September 2003

The government in Djibouti has extended by two weeks the deadline for the departure of illegal immigrants from the East African country, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been struggling to cope with thousands of people who thronged a transit centre in a last bid to apply for asylum and legalize their stay.

Citing security and economic concerns, the government of Djibouti had given illegal immigrants up to 31 August to leave the country. An estimated 10,000 people, instead of the expected 4,000, turned up at a stadium in the Djibouti capital, Djibouti, where they had been asked to gather ahead of their transfer to a transit centre at Aour-Aoussa, some 120 kilometres away.

"By Saturday, the stadium was teeming with illegal immigrants mixed with asylum seekers, the former anxious to find ways of legalizing their stay in Djibouti ahead of the 31 August deadline for their departure from Djibouti," UNHCR spokesman Rupert Coleville said in Geneva today.

The large turnout at the stadium on quickly outstripped the vehicle capacity arranged by UNHCR, forcing the government to provide additional trucks to transport the waiting crowds at the stadium to the transit centre.

"All activities at the transit centre were completely paralysed by the unruly mobs at the centre. Neither registration of genuine asylum seekers nor food distribution could be started over the weekend," Mr. Coleville said.

Government officials have since deployed military personnel to man the perimeter of the transit centre and police to instil order inside the facility.

UNHCR staff, working with Djibouti government officials, yesterday 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.