Government’s worldwide need to stop treating asylum seekers like criminals, a senior United Nations official said yesterday, warning many refugees face “deplorable” conditions in their quest for a safe haven.
Erika Feller, Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said migrants seeking legal protection were often handcuffed, shackled and interviewed behind plexiglass as if they were high-security inmates.
“The practice of detention in itself, absent serious reasons to justify it, and the conditions of detention, which can be deplorable, remain a huge challenge in all parts of the world,” she told the UNHCR’s executive committee.
Babies, children and pregnant women have been reported kept in cramped spaces with one toilet per every 100 people, in what Feller deemed a “psychological health hazard, an offense to human dignity and in violation of fundamental rights.”
In her remarks to the Geneva diplomats, who represent donor governments including top refugee destinations, she said such harsh immigration policies made it increasingly difficult for people to escape brutality and oppression.
Many asylum applicants are hosted in areas that are too close to the conflict zones from which they fled, prevented from moving further away because of laws stating that protection must be requested at the first possible outpost.
That leaves vulnerable people exposed to sexual violence and other physical threats, contrary to the spirit of international law, according to the UNHCR official in charge of protection.
“Asylum conditions can provide as devastating an experience in some situations as the circumstances which forced the exile,” she said, naming Kenya’s congested Dadaab camp as a particularly harsh example.
That site was built for 90 000 refugees but houses 275 000 mainly Somalis who are pouring into Kenya at an average rate of 7000 per month. Its residents lack medical care, clean latrines and sufficient food, Feller said.
“One can but wonder how, in these conditions, it can be said that asylum is providing real or meaningful human security,” she told the Geneva meeting.
She also warned many governments were shirking their international legal responsibility to rescue people stranded at sea, citing “a hardening attitude on the part of governments to irregular migration.”
“Loss of life at sea is now a real and constant threat,” said Feller, an Australian.
So far this year, according to UNHCR figures, 145 people have died and at least 177 are missing after attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden separating the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a gateway to the Middle East.
Another 100 people have died and 288 went missing while trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.
Pic: Refugees from Puntland