Monthly Archives: January 2012

More than 1,500 drown or go missing trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2011

Italian coastguard vessels arrive at Lampedusa Island after rescuing people on the Mediterranean.

GENEVA, January 31 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency on Tuesday released figures showing that more than 1,500 irregular migrants or refugees drowned or went missing last year while attempting crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.

“This makes 2011 the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006. The previous high was in 2007 when 630 people were reported dead or missing,” Senior Communications Officer Sybella Wilkes told journalists in Geneva, while adding that at least 18 people had drowned this year to date after setting off from Libya for Europe.

“Our teams in Greece, Italy, Libya and Malta, warn that the actual number of deaths at sea may be even higher,” Wilkes said. “Our estimates are based on interviews with people who reached Europe on boats, telephone calls and e-mails from relatives, as well as reports from Libya and Tunisia from survivors whose boats either sank or were in distress in the early stages of the journey,” she explained.

Wilkes also revealed that a record 58,000 irregular migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees managed to make it to European shores last year after setting off in boats from Asia or North Africa. The previous high was in 2008, when 54,000 people reached Greece, Italy and Malta.

During 2009 and 2010, border control measures sharply reduced the number of arrivals in Europe. The frequency of boat arrivals increased in early 2011 as the governments in Tunisia and Libya collapsed.

The majority of last year’s arrivals by sea landed in Italy (56,000, of whom 28,000 were Tunisian) while Malta and Greece received 1,574 and 1,030 respectively. The majority arrived in the first half of the year and most were migrants, not asylum-seekers or refugees. Only three smuggler’s boats arrived after mid-August.

UNHCR’s Wilkes said that so far this year, “despite high seas and poor weather conditions,” three boats had attempted the perilous journey from Libya and one of them – carrying 55 people – had gone missing.

“Libyan coastguards informed UNHCR that 15 dead bodies, all identified as Somali, were found washed up on the beaches [of Libya] last week, including 12 women, two men and a baby girl. On Sunday, three more bodies were recovered,” Wilkes said. It was later confirmed that all those who drowned were Somali residents of the makeshift site in Tripoli known as the Railway Project.

The other two boats made it to Malta and Italy, but required rescuing. The Italian coastguard saved 72 Somalis, including a pregnant woman and 29 children, on January 13. The second boat was rescued two days later by the Maltese armed forces with the support of the US navy and a commercial vessel. In total 68 people were rescued from a drifting dinghy.

“UNHCR welcomes the ongoing efforts of the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean. We renew our call to all shipmasters in the Mediterranean . . . to remain vigilant and to carry out their duty of rescuing vessels in distress,” Wilkes said.


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Detention centre ‘equivalent to prison’

The detention centre at Leonora, 830km northeast of Perth. Picture: Marie Nirme Source: The Australian

The detention centre at Leonora, 830km northeast of Perth. Picture: Marie Nirme  Source: The Australian

REFUGEE rights activists who visited the Leonora detention centre in Western Australia say they are shocked that guards referred to teenage immigration detainees by numbers not their names.

But the Department of Immigration has denied the allegation, saying “all clients are treated with dignity and respect and are called by their names”.

About 40 members of the Refugee Rights Action Network visited the remote centre in WA’s Goldfields region on Friday and Saturday and some were granted visits to detainees.

Around 160 boys, mostly aged 16 to 17, are housed at the Leonora centre, awaiting outcomes to their requests for asylum.

RRAN spokeswoman Victoria Martin-Iverson said the boys were locked up in the equivalent of a medium security prison at the centre, about 800km from Perth.

She said RRAN visitors were shocked to hear guards referring to detainees by numbers not their names.

“At one point an officer entered the visitor room and demanded to know if `176′ was in there with us,” she said.

“On another occasion a guard commented that a boy she referred to by number spoke good English and might help translate.”

But an Immigration Department spokeswoman said it was not the case that detainees were referred to by numbers.

“It’s not true, all clients are treated with dignity and respect and are called by their names.”

She said Serco, the private contracted operator at Leonora, was required by the department to call detainees by their names.

Ms Martin-Iverson said a psychologist with the RRAN group observed signs of depression and despair among the boys, some of whom had been waiting up to two years for determination of their refugee status.

She said it was also clear that they boys had very few excursions into the town of Leonora to visit the library or swimming pool.

“They had no idea what the town looked like, they were not allowed out.”


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Lost at sea: 37 of 3237 boatpeople had passports

ASYLUM-SEEKERS are discarding their passports at soaring rates, sparking renewed calls for boatpeople to be penalised for destroying their identity documents in a bid to help their refugee claims.

Of the 3237 asylum-seekers who admitted to flying to Indonesia on a passport, 3200 did not have any travel documents when they arrived in Australia.

People-smugglers routinely advise their clients to discard their identity documents before arriving in Australia.

The refugee status assessment process operates primarily on a risk model, meaning there can be significant advantages to inventing false identities and claims of persecution.

The absence of documentation also makes it extremely hard to deport failed asylum-seekers, because receiving countries are reluctant to accept those whose nationality is not clear. But it complicates the refugee status assessment process, contributing to the length of time asylum-seekers are held in detention.

The figures showing some 3200 asylum-seekers arrived from Indonesia without documentation – revealed in Senate estimates – cover the period from July 1, 2010, to October 17 last year.

The information is based on admissions made by asylum-seekers during their initial entry interviews with officials.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the admissions raised serious questions about the validity of many asylum claims.

“It frustrates our assessment process and is done on the assumption that they will receive the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Morrison said of the practice of dumping documentation.

“A person’s document, if you are a refugee, should be the most important document you hold, because it proves your case. The destruction of those documents raises totally reasonable suspicions about those claims.”

Under Coalition policy there would be a presumption against granting refugee status in cases where it could be reasonably assumed the applicant had deliberately destroyed their identity documents.

The policy would not apply to boatpeople who lost their passports under legitimate circumstances: for instance, if they were taken by overseas authorities.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen suggested the Coalition’s policy was unworkable and defended Australia’s refugee status process as “rigorous”.

“People will only be granted protection visas after their claims have been thoroughly tested and they are found to have a genuine fear of persecution,” said a spokeswoman for Mr Bowen.

“Mr Morrison should clarify if he would send someone found to be a refugee back to their home country in breach of the Refugee Convention because they didn’t have a passport.”

The Senate estimates figures also show people-smugglers have been operating well outside Indonesia in the past three years.

Although Indonesia is still far and away favoured as the final staging point for boatpeople since late 2008, 10 vessels have sailed directly from Sri Lanka and four from Malaysia. Another two have sailed directly from the east coast of India, with one launching from Chennai and the second from Pondicherry.

Three boats have sailed from Vietnam, with one leaving directly from Saigon.


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Cantons struggle to house asylum seekers

Villagers from Bettwil in canton Aargau strongly oppose federal plans to house 140 asylum seekers there. (Keystone)

by Simon Bradley in Pully,

Finding temporary housing for an increased number of asylum seekers is causing a headache for local authorities, compounded by public anxiety and resistance.

This week some 400 concerned residents from Pully, an affluent small town on the edge of Lausanne, attended a heated information session regarding the imminent opening of an underground civil protection shelter to hold 50 asylum seekers.

Despite agreement in principle between the federal and cantonal authorities, plans to create additional capacities for 2,000 asylum seekers by the end of 2011 have run into difficulties owing to building regulations, unavailability of military sites and local resistance. Across Switzerland cantons and communes have been obliged urgently to find temporary accommodation at short notice to house growing numbers. In the end the Pully meeting was less confrontational than one at Gland, also in canton Vaud, last year. But similar questions arose from the mainly elderly audience, centring on potential security concerns to the tranquil lakeside town and worries over drug-dealing. “Are we going to find these people in our apartments in the daytime when the centre is closed?” asked one woman. “Who are all these people? Most of them are here for economic reasons, some become drug dealers or marry to get Swiss papers,” said another. But opposing views could also be heard: “It’s all typically Vaudois to criticise things in advance. We have to trust the authorities.” Vaud interior minister Philippe Leuba urged people to avoid stereotypes. “There are delinquents – I send some of them back home by plane every day – there are people here for economic reasons seeking a better life, but there are also people who have suffered, others who have been tortured and others who are real political refugees,” he added. Pierre Imhof, director of the Vaud migration service (EVAM), also tried to reassure the audience. “Concerns over security are generally unfounded as asylum seekers are supervised, they typically attend a day centre… but we can’t exclude things happening,” he commented, while stressing the success of local migrant work schemes.

Sharp increase

Pully’s Damataire centre is the sixth temporary shelter opened by EVAM to cope with the sharp national increase in asylum seekers last year – up 45 per cent on 2010 to 22,551, the highest number since 2002. Under an agreement to share the burden among the 26 cantons, Vaud is receiving 8.4 per cent of the total number of asylum seekers. But officials are struggling to find suitable short-term accommodation while decisions over longer-term options drag on. Pully authorities agreed to open the centre on a temporary basis for one year, extendable for three-month periods according to demand. Leuba admitted his task was not an easy one. “I’m not here to give good news, but it’s my duty to accept the consequences of our asylum policy… it’s a particularly difficult one which does not please everyone,” said the centre-right Radical politician. “All of our permanent structures are 100 per cent full. We hope reforms by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga will shorten the current asylum application process and new federal asylum structures will mean we do not have to open too many civil protection shelters as each time it’s difficult and living conditions are not easy.”

Cantonal obligation

Not all cantons are affected to the same degree and reactions have differed from region to region. In canton Geneva a second civil protection centre has been opened for 40 men in Carouge as a last-minute solution to cope with the overspill. But their arrival has gone relatively smoothly. In canton Fribourg the government declared on January 19 that it was planning to open a civil protection shelter in the village of Wünnewil from mid-February for 50 asylum seekers. Locals there have expressed worries over how this might transform life in the small Fribourg village. Some mothers of teenage girls are concerned about the potential risk from young male asylum seekers who will be housed near the school. In some German-speaking communes resistance to the obligation to welcome small groups of asylum seekers has been more acute. In Birmensdorf in canton Zurich the local rightwing Swiss People’s Party president Werner Steiner said he wanted no more Africans staying in one of the containers located next to the army barracks. And in the village of Bettwil (557 residents) in canton Aargau, initial plans by the Federal Migration Office to house 140 asylum seekers at a renovated barracks have hit stiff local opposition. Even a heavily watered down proposal of 20-40 people was rejected last week.

Simon Bradley in Pully,


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Refugees make dramatic protests for freedom

Refugee rights protest in Perth, October 2011. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

In Hobart’s Pontville detention centre, 35 Afghan refugees had been on hunger strike for a week, putting three of them in hospital, when they were joined by more than 100 others. It meant almost half the centre’s detainees were refusing food by January 24.

The actions were in protest against the government’s failure to deliver its promise to release more refugees from detention to live in the community on bridging visas while their claims are assessed.

The Gillard government said in November that it would grant 100 bridging visas each month to refugees that had spent more than a year in dangerously overcrowded detention centres. But by January 13, only 107 such visas had been granted.

Sydney Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul told the Hobart Mercury that most involved in the hunger strike had been detained for “between 15 and 33 months and are becoming increasingly frustrated”.

There are 381 Afghan, Iranian and Syrian refugees presently held in the centre, which has a maximum capacity of 400.

The protesters decided to suspend their fast for seven days on January 25 while continuing talks with immigration staff, Rintoul said.

Another prolonged hunger strike ended in a Melbourne detention centre on January 24, where a 33-year-old Iranian refugee starved himself for more than 14 days in a bid to see the immigration case manager handling his refugee claim.

He became severely ill and was hospitalised, but resumed his fast as soon as he returned to detention. Refugee supporters said he has been locked up for more than 16 months, and began the hunger strike after a second visa rejection.

Four other men who have been held for more than 12 months also took part in the hunger strike, but ended it on January 24 after immigration staff told them it would affect their visa bids. Other detainees have reported similar threats, despite immigration minister Chris Bowen’s constant assertions that protests such as hunger strikes have “no effect” on the outcomes of cases.

The Refugee Action Collective Victoria said some of the men have already been granted refugee status, but have been waiting months for “security checks” by ASIO.

Another man at the centre lay on the ground outside for two days, refusing to eat or drink. Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said on January 14 she saw him “in the dirt curled up and clutching the wire fence”. A guard stood by and another asylum seeker came to lay a blanket on him overnight.

Curr said he was accepted as a refugee more than five months ago but was also waiting for ASIO to clear him for a visa.

He was on a suicide watch and reportedly said: “They treat me like animal so I am animal.” Refugee advocates told Green Left Weeklythat Serco-employed guards “showed an incredible lack of care”.

They said the 33-year-old might be moved into community detention after his two-week ordeal. The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture told GLW they found him to be in a “critically ill state”.

“Security checks” carried out by ASIO at the request of the immigration department have dragged out the detention time of hundreds of proven refugees.

ASIO director-general David Irvine told the parliamentary committee on detention centres in November that “80% of … security assessments have been completed in less than a week”.

But “the 20% or less of remaining cases are what we call complex cases”. For these cases, there is no time limit, no oversight and ASIO does not need to reveal any of its information, sources or evidence.

There are now more than 400 refugees in the new compound at the Wickham Point detention centre, 40 kilometres from Darwin. The first 100 were flown from Christmas Island in early December, and the centre is intended to hold up to 1500 people.

Refugee and human rights groups strongly opposed the site. It was previously deemed “unbearable” for workers of a Japanese gas company, because of a high level of biting midge and mosquitoes. The salt marsh mosquito, prevalent in the area, can transmit Ross River and Barmah Forest virus, which cause fever, rash and joint pain.

The immigration department’s solution was to provide insect repellent and instruct detainees to wear long sleeves.

In early January, a report surfaced of a refugee who was moved from the Scherger detention centre in far-north Queensland and put in solitary confinement on Christmas Island, Curr told The Cairns Post.

“He has been put in an isolation cell coming up to four weeks now,” she said. “Troublesome” asylum seekers are being locked up in “Guantanamo” style cages on Christmas Island, confined for 23 hours a day as “behaviour modification”.


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Fears aired for asylum seekers’ mental health

January 27, 2012

The chairwoman of an advisory panel to the Department of Immigration says the mental health of detainees being held at the Lenora Detention Centre will suffer if they are not sent back to the local school.

The department is teaching 90 male teenage asylum seekers within the centre and although teenage detainees were schooled in the community last year, there are no plans to send them back when school begins next week.

The Refugee Rights Action Group is holding a vigil outside the centre today, to protest over what it sees as the inhumane treatment of the teenagers.

The chairwoman of the Detention Health Advisory Group, Louise Newman, says the Federal Government should be trying to minimise any psychological suffering.

“Many of them are already traumatised … so it’s absolutely essential that they have experiences that are positive for their mental health, that give them a sense of hope,” she said.

She says the detainees need regular contact with society.

“To take that away from such a vulnerable group of young people is really particularly high risk and that we might well be seeing increasing depression, frustration and other mental health problems in a group like this,” she said.


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Accident of truck filled with immigrants – five of them died yesterday night

January 27, 2012

Yesterday night a truck transporting 48 Afghan refugees had an accident near Astakos. Five of the passengers died, 25 got injured. The truck had been stolen some days before. The driver could escape.


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