The UN refugee agency has warned the international community is losing its focus on saving lives amid confusion among coastal nations and regional blocs on how to respond to the growing number of people making risky sea journeys in search of asylum or migration.
With preparations under way for the opening day of 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 Refugees António Guterres said some governments were increasingly seeing keeping foreigners out as being a higher priority than upholding asylum.
“This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars. 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,” Guterres said.
The clandestine nature of these sea crossings makes reliable comparisons with previous years difficult, but available data points to 2014 being a record high.
Estimates from coastal authorities and information from confirmed interdictions and other monitoring indicate at least 348,000 people have risked such journeys worldwide since the start of January. Historically, a principal driver has been migration, but this year the number of asylum-seekers involved has grown.
Europe, facing conflicts to its south (Libya), east (Ukraine) and south-east (Syria/Iraq) is seeing the largest number of sea arrivals. Although not all are people needing asylum, more than 207,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean since the start of January – almost three times the previous known high of about 70,000 in 2011, when the Libyan civil war was in full swing. For the first time, people from refugee-producing countries (mainly Syria and Eritrea) have in 2014 become a major component in this tragic flow, accounting for almost half the total.
In addition to the Mediterranean, there are at least three other major sea routes in use today both by migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution. In the Horn of Africa region 82,680 people crossed the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea in the first 11 months of this year en route mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen or onwards to Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Persian Gulf.
In south-east Asia, an estimated 54,000 people have undertaken sea crossings so far in 2014, most of them departing from Bangladesh or Myanmar and heading to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. In the Caribbean, at least 4,775 people are known to have taken to boats in the first 11 months, hoping to flee poverty or in search of asylum.
And many die or fall victim to international organised crime in the process of making these journeys.
Worldwide, UNHCR has received information of 4,272 reported deaths this year. This includes 3,419 on the Mediterranean – making it the deadliest route of all. In south-east Asia, an estimated 540 people have died in attempts to cross the Bay of Bengal.
In the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, at least 242 lives had been lost by December 8, while in the Caribbean the reported number of dead or missing as of the start of December was 71. People smuggling networks are flourishing, operating with impunity in areas of instability or conflict and profiting from human desperation.
Guterres said by focusing on isolated elements to a problem that by its nature is multi-layered and transnational – often involving routes stretching across multiple borders and over thousands of kilometres – 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. The real root 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 that prosper from this, while at the same time protecting their victims. It also means having proper systems to deal with arrivals and distinguishing real refugees from those who are not.” said Guterres.
This year’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue gathers representatives of governments, non-governmental organisations, coast guard and, academics as well as representatives from partner international organisations. It is being held in Geneva’s Palais des Nations and finishes today.