Every year, thousands of people embark on perilous sea voyages on unseaworthy vessels, without a proper crew or any safety equipment, in an attempt to reach Europe from north and west Africa. Some are fleeing conflict; others are trying to escape grinding poverty. They are all looking for a better future. Many never make it to Europe: they die at sea from dehydration; they drown; or they are intercepted by patrol boats and returned to the country from which they departed.
While some of the women, men and children attempting this dangerous journey to Europe are leaving their own country, for many others the country of departure is not their own, but somewhere through which they were transiting in an attempt to reach Europe. If returned there, they will usually be considered “illegal” migrants, and face a real risk of arbitrary and prolonged detention, ill-treatment and other human rights violations.1 Even when not detained, irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers can be subjected to abuses at the hands of police and employers who exploit the vulnerability inherent in their irregular status.