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UNHCR Calls for Protection of Refugees

The U.N. refugee agency is appealing to European Union countries to make sure that people seeking asylum are given a fair hearing of their claims for international protection. The UNHCR says it is concerned about the treatment of the growing number of Africans arriving by sea in Mediterranean countries.

U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 67,000 people made the crossing to Europe by sea last year. It says more than half arrived in Italy and Malta alone, mostly after transiting Libya.

U.N. refugee spokesman, Ron Redmond, says the vast majority applied for asylum. And, he says, more than half of those claiming asylum were found to be in need of international protection.

"With few opportunities to enter the EU by regular means, thousands of people threatened by persecution and serious human rights violations in their home countries have no choice but to take this dangerous sea route," said Redmond. "This highlights the vital need to ensure that State agreements and measures to tighten borders do not block access to safety for those who are seeking protection in the EU."

Toward the end of last year, there were chaotic scenes of thousands of African migrants landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Most of the people who came by boat were from Somalia and Eritrea.

Redmond says the UNHCR appreciates the efforts made by Mediterranean States to rescue people in distress at sea. At the same time, he says the agency understands that these arrivals put an enormous financial and social strain on receiving governments.

He says the UNHCR is increasingly concerned by what it sees as growing animosity toward the large number of irregular migrants taking the Mediterranean sea route and landing in southern Europe.

"We just want to ensure that people continue to receive access to proper asylum procedures," said Redmond. "If they are found not to be deserving of international protection, then, by all means, every government has the right and the responsibility to protect its borders-take action and deport people if necessary."

Redmond cautions States they could be in violation of international law if they send asylum seekers back to countries where they cannot enjoy effective protection.