UNHCR: Best Remedy for Sea Migrations Is Tackling Root Causes

UNHCR has warned that the international community was losing its focus on saving lives amid confusion among coastal nations and regional blocs over how to respond to the growing number of people making risky sea journeys in search of asylum or migration.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said some governments are 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,” Guterres said. “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 that by focusing on isolated elements to a problem that by its nature is multi-layered and trans-national – often involving routes that stretch 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,” said Guterres. “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 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 not.”

The clandestine nature of these sea crossings makes reliable comparisons with previous years difficult, but available data points to 2014 being a record high. According to estimates from coastal authorities and information from confirmed interdictions and other monitoring, at least 348,000 people have risked such journeys worldwide since the start of January. Historically, a principal driver has been migration, but in in 2014 the number of asylum seekers involved has grown.

Worldwide, UNHCR has received information of 4,272 reported deaths this year. Some 3,419 of these have been on the Mediterranean – making it the deadliest route of all. In Southeast Asia, it’s estimated that 540 people have died in their attempts to cross the Bay of Bengal. In the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, at least 242 lives have been lost as of 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 meanwhile flourishing, operating with impunity in areas of instability or conflict, and profiting from human cargoes that are driven by desperation.