As number of seafaring migrants surges, UN calls for better global protection efforts

17 December 2014

10 December 2014 – Amid record high numbers of global migrant arrivals by sea, the international community is steadily losing focus on saving lives and intensifying its efforts to deny foreigners access to asylum, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned ahead of a Geneva-based forum devoted to protecting sea-bound migrants.

“This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” António Guterres, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said today in a press release. “Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”

According to estimates from coastal authorities and data points collected by the UN, at least 348,000 people have risked seafaring journeys worldwide since the beginning of 2014 as they flee conflicts and poverty. Europe, facing conflicts to its south in Libya, east in Ukraine, and southeast in Syria and Iraq, is currently seeing the largest number of sea arrivals with 207,000 people crossing the Mediterranean to reach its shores – almost three times the previous known high of about 70,000, registered in 2011.

However, the UN agency noted, there are at least three other major sea routes in use today both by migrants seeking better economic opportunities and asylum seekers escaping conflict. In the Horn of Africa, some 82,000 people crossed the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea between 1 January and the end of November, leaving Ethiopia and Somalia for countries in the Arabian Peninsula. In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, an estimated 54,000 people have undertaken sea crossings, departing Bangladesh or Myanmar and heading to Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. And, in the Caribbean, 2014 has seen almost 5,000 people take to boats as they escape the clutches of poverty and explore asylum options in the neighbouring countries.

In addition to the difficulties of these journeys which often stretch across multiple borders and over thousands of kilometres, many of those migrating along these maritime corridors succumb to trafficking and smuggling networks coordinated by international organized crime. As the flow of migrants continues to swell, the UN said, many governments were finding themselves “unable to either stem the flow or stop people dying along the journey.”

“You can’t stop a person who is fleeing for their life by deterrence, without escalating the dangers even more,” Mr. Guterres continued. “The real causes have to be addressed, and this means looking at why people are fleeing, what prevents them from seeking asylum by safer means, and what can be done to crack down on the criminal networks who prosper from this, while at the same time protecting their victims.”

“It also means having proper systems to deal with arrivals and distinguish real refugees from those who are note,” he said.

Mr. Guterres’ words come as UN officials from its humanitarian and human rights agencies prepare to gather at UNHCR’s 2014 High Commissioner’s Dialogue in Geneva – an informal policy discussion forum whose focus this year is “Protection at Sea.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who was also in attendance at the UNHCR event, similarly cautioned that as wealthy nations continue to guard themselves from migrant arrivals and asylum seekers, they also risk transforming into xenophobic “gated communities.”

“Unilateral attempts to close borders are almost certainly futile, and the response cannot just lie in aggressive, and often counterproductive, anti-smuggling plans,” affirmed Mr. Zeid in a press release.

“When migrants are left to drift for weeks without access to food and water; when ships deliberately refuse to rescue migrants in distress; when children in search of family reunification are detained indefinitely, denied education and care, or returned to perilous situations – these are grave human rights violations.”

The UN rights chief pointed out that policies that seek to “stamp out migration” do not decrease the numbers of would-be migrants but, instead, “exacerbate the dangers they endure” creating zones of lawlessness and impunity. As a result, he continued, nations were encouraged to establish accessible corridors for legal migration and discourage the current “siege mentality” fanned by a growing number of populist politicians and leaders.

“Ultimately, unless they can access safe and regular migration channels, desperate people may continue to brave the perils of the sea in search of protection, opportunity and hope. In their place, we would probably do the same. And perhaps only this recognition of our common humanity can guide us to make the right choices in response,” he concluded.