Asylum Seekers Unnerve Governments
As violence flared from Afghanistan to Iraq to Mexico this year, hundreds of thousands fled over land and by boat in search of safety. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asylum applications in the first half of 2009 were up 10 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.
Asylum seekers' main destinations—Europe, Australia, and Canada—were not new, but the governments in these countries took a harder line in 2009.
One of the most dramatic events of the year took place in September in Calais, the French port city that has long been a departure point for asylum seekers trying to enter the United Kingdom illegally.
Issue No. 10 of Top Ten of 2009
French police bulldozed a camp in Calais known to locals and migrants as the "jungle" and detained over 270 people, half of them minors. They were sent to detention centers, and in many cases, judges released them.
France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, said the operation was intended to break up human smuggling networks; he later called it a success. But UNHCR and other organizations have said the Calais operation did not address illegal migration or solve the problems of the people concerned.
France went a step further in October, joining the British government in arranging a charter flight to return would-be Afghan asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
In July, Greek police cleared a decade-old camp in the port city of Patras and arrested unauthorized migrants and brought those with valid papers to local hotels; minors were sent to a camp near the Albanian border.
Greece is the entry point for thousands of asylum seekers who are trying to get to northern Europe. Observers have noted that better patrolling of the Western Mediterranean has pushed people to cross the Eastern Mediterranean, putting additional pressure on Greece. Like Italy, which has also struggled to police its coasts, Greece this year passed legislation that increased the amount of time unauthorized migrants can be detained.
For the first time in years, Australia has seen an increase in asylum seekers trying to enter the country by boat. This new wave of asylum seekers, most of them from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, set off a new public outcry.
One case in particular has caused political headaches for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In mid-October, an Australian customs ship called the Oceanic Viking rescued 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in international waters and attempted to bring them to Indonesia for processing. But in a standoff that lasted over a month, the Sri Lankans refused to come ashore in Indonesia, saying they wanted to be taken to Australia.
Eventually all 78 left the boat and entered an Australian-funded processing center in Indonesia after the Australian government essentially promised them their claims would be fast-tracked. Australia's opposition leader attacked the government's offer, saying it will only encourage more human smugglers.
On the opposite side of the world, Canada was confronted with thousands of asylum claims from Mexico and the Czech Republic. Citing the cost of processing applications and a reduced ability to quickly process genuine claims, the government announced in July that citizens of both countries need to have visas before they can travel to Canada.
In fact, Mexico became Canada's top source country for applications. Although claims from Mexico have almost tripled since 2005, only 11 percent of claims reviewed in 2008 were accepted. More Mexicans fled home this year as the Mexican government stepped up its fight against violent drug gangs.
Claims from the Czech Republic swiftly ramped up once Canada lifted the visa requirement in late 2007. The government was concerned that many applicants may not be genuine refugees: more than half of the claims were abandoned or withdrawn before the Immigration and Refugee Board made a final decision.