Refugees may be caught up in European crackdown on illegal migrants – UN

2 February 2005

Concerned that genuine asylum seekers are mixed in with the flow of illegal migrants that the European Union (EU) is battling, the United Nations refugee agency, in cooperation with the European Commission, is launching a one-year project to gather essential information on migration through North Africa into Europe.

“This project is an important and in many ways pioneering initiative for the refugee agency,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva. “It is a first step towards understanding the link between transit migration and refugees and creating a protection space for asylum seekers while they are in transit.”

This problem raises new challenges and the agency stressed its increasing concern that in their effort to combat illegal migration EU countries tend to overlook the needs of the refugees mixed in with the illegal migrants. Because the refugee dimension of transit migration has so far been largely ignored, comparatively little is known about the number of potential refugees involved.

UNHCR will seek testimony from asylum seekers in southern European nations, like Italy, Spain and Malta, which are first ports of call for thousands of people transiting from Africa. It will also seek to talk to asylum seekers and migrants in North Africa, with interviews already planned in Mauritania.

Another axis of the project is to increase dialogue on refugee issues in North Africa, both at the national and regional level, in order to develop basic protection mechanisms for asylum seekers and potential refugees. Many North African nations have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but need to develop a national framework to create an asylum space in the region.

The third part of the project will look into the question of how to manage the protection of asylum seekers and potential refugees on the high seas. In the vast majority of cases, the trip from Africa to Europe involves a sea crossing, often organized by illegal traffickers, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The question of interception of boats on the high seas is difficult and often neglected, raising concerns about which state is responsible for the asylum seekers who might be onboard. In this regard, UNHCR will be advocating a multilateral approach involving the EU, countries of transit and the relevant international organizations.