The United Nations refugee agency today called on the European Union (EU) and its border agency, known as FRONTEX, to ensure that asylum in Europe is not being threatened in the drive for tighter policing of the continent’s external borders.
“Our concern is that in its efforts to stem illegal migration, Europe should not forget that among those seeking to enter the EU are people who need international protection and are at risk of their lives,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told a news conference in Geneva.
Europe is a destination for both migrants and asylum-seekers. Migrants may be seeking employment or other economic opportunities, while refugees are people fleeing persecution or violence and who cannot return to their countries of origin.
UNHCR said evidence of how difficult it has become for people seeking protection in Europe can be seen in the data on arrivals by sea in the central Mediterranean.
“Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta have all seen drastic reductions in arrivals by sea over the past year or two, almost certainly a result of tighter border controls, joint patrols and push-backs at sea,” said Mr. Mahecic.
The agency estimates that some 8,800 people arrived by sea in the first 10 months of this year, compared to 32,000 in the same period in 2009 – a 72.5 per cent decrease. Close to two thirds of the 2010 sea arrivals have been in Greece, while a third were in Italy, and the rest in Malta and Cyprus.
“The stemming of sea arrivals is not solving the problem but shifting it elsewhere,” the spokesperson stressed. “This can be seen in the corresponding sharp rise there has been in overland arrivals in the Evros region of Greece. Evros recorded 38,992 arrivals in the first 10 months of this year compared to 7,574 in the same period in 2009 – a 415 per cent increase.”
UNHCR has made no secret about its concerns about the humanitarian situation for new arrivals in Greece, where an asylum-seeker currently has a “negligible” chance of having his or her claim to refugee status properly assessed, noted Mr. Mahecic.
“UNHCR recognizes the need for border management, but this must be protection-sensitive,” he stated. “Border control policies that indiscriminately block arrivals encourage those seeking asylum to resort to ever riskier and more desperate routes to safety – a reason why growing numbers of asylum-seekers today find themselves in the hands of people smuggling rings.”