High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges, Protection at Sea. Opening remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, 10 December 2014


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Colleagues and Friends,

This is our seventh annual Protection Dialogue. These meetings always discuss challenges that are complex and require innovative thinking. But the phenomenon that has brought us here today is perhaps the most complex yet, and - for me at least - the most painful.

Since the beginning of this year, nearly 350,000 people worldwide have taken to the seas in search of asylum or of better opportunities. We know of more than 4,000 persons - including hundreds of children - who did not survive these dangerous journeys, although the real number is probably considerably higher. Maritime movements of this nature are a growing phenomenon and a truly global challenge, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aden, from the Bay of Bengal to the Caribbean.

And for the first time in several decades, I believe a majority of the people on those boats are not economic migrants, but fleeing conflict and persecution, desperately looking for a place to live in peace. The growing number of women, children and elderly people being rescued is testimony to this fact. If entire families are risking their lives at sea today, it is because they have already lost everything else, and see no other option to find safety. And as they get on these boats, more and more of them drown on the way, some within sight of land. And just listening to the stories told by the survivors of these tragedies is excruciating.

In an era when more people are forcibly displaced around the world than since any of us can remember, the rise in boat journeys highlights a bigger problem. Multiplying conflicts, human rights violations, statelessness - but also other drivers like the effects of climate change, population growth, jobless urbanization and food and water insecurity - all contribute to millions being forced from their homes in search of safety and survival.

States' responses to this complex and growing challenge have been mixed. But one thing is clear: focusing only on border control and deterrence will not solve the problem. It is the duty of any government to ensure security and to manage immigration, but these policies must be designed in a way that human lives do no end up becoming collateral damage. The international community must of course be more effective in cracking down on smugglers and traffickers. But an exclusive focus on security and targeting criminal activity only risks making these journeys even more dangerous, and those travelling more vulnerable. One cannot stop a person who is fleeing for life by deterrence, without escalating the dangers even more. Any effective response must also address the root causes of this phenomenon.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mixed maritime movements require comprehensive responses that address all their different aspects. These include effective search and rescue along the major sea routes, and proper systems to deal with arrivals, identify people with protection needs, and provide them with access to procedures and solutions.

But we must also look 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. Essentially, better protection at sea means preventing the causes of forced displacement and improving protection at the origin of population movements, en route, and at the destination.

The repeated tragedies in the Mediterranean and elsewhere make it clear that the most urgent focus must of course be on saving lives. I would like to express my deep appreciation for the work of coast guards, naval personnel and commercial ship crews around the world who are at the forefront of search and rescue operations, sometimes at great risk and cost to themselves.

Italy in particular is to be commended for its Mare Nostrum initiative, which has saved over 160,000 people. Maintaining a robust European search and rescue capacity across the Mediterranean, rather than shifting the focus exclusively to border surveillance, will be essential in preventing more lives from being lost.

The obligation to rescue people in distress at sea already had a long history prior to the establishment of the corresponding international conventions. But in the case of mixed migratory movements, the lack of real responsibility-sharing among States can make this obligation a challenge to implement, especially for commercial vessels.

Developing clear and predictable regional arrangements, for example based on the model drawn up at the Djibouti Roundtable in 2011, could help reduce some of the major disincentives to rescue at sea, mitigate the considerable negative impact on the shipping industry, and contribute to saving lives. Such arrangements would need to include clear rules for safe disembarkation; acceptable reception conditions; protection screening and status determination; access to fair and efficient asylum procedures; solutions and livelihoods; as well as specific support for persons with special needs.

For a growing number of people, the primary motivation for getting on these boats is not hope, but despair. Few things cause me more anguish than seeing refugees and asylum-seekers, who have already lost everything to conflict and war, risk their lives at the hands of ruthless smugglers and traffickers, suffering dramatic violations of their human rights - all because they have no other way of accessing safety. A comprehensive approach to the problem at sea must therefore also include safe alternative means of entry.

These range from increased opportunities for resettlement and humanitarian admission, to enlarged family reunification and more flexible visa policies, including humanitarian visa that would allow people to seek asylum after legally arriving in the country. Private sponsorship arrangements, academic scholarships and, increasingly, labour mobility schemes are other options which governments should expand, in cooperation with civil society and the private sector, to give more people a legal avenue to access protection and better opportunities.

But ultimately, efforts to address irregular boat movements have to start in the countries of origin of the people who make them - first of all, through effective conflict prevention, but also through establishing a clear link between development cooperation policies and human mobility, as population movements are one of the most significant phenomena characterizing the 21st century.

One of the aims of development cooperation should be to address the causes of forced displacement, and to make migration an option rather than a desperate need. But instead, some current forms of international cooperation based on inadequate development models may inadvertently contribute to people being uprooted, and to the chaotic growth of the slums of megacities.

Development support not only needs to focus on mitigating the conditions that push people to move in the first place. It must also build capacity in transit states and countries of first asylum. For example, "Protection in the region" programmes are one of several aspects that should be expanded to help stabilize large refugee populations as well as their hosts.

Efforts to increase protection capacity en route are also essential. But they must not aim at "dumping" people on transit countries - instead, they should focus on creating the conditions for the rights and dignity of those on the move to be respected.

All this cannot be a humanitarian responsibility alone, but requires a close connection with development cooperation programmes. Countries of origin, transit and destination must be linked in a coordinated effort to manage human mobility with dignity and foresight, making migration part of the solution, and not part of the problem of modern times.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is not a one-country or a one-agency kind of issue. It covers a wide spectrum of concerns and responsibilities, as expressed by the Joint Statement that we have published together with IMO, IOM, OHCHR and UNODC in the margins of this meeting. These boat movements can only be addressed effectively through cooperation among a wide range of actors: governments, national and international organizations, civil society and the private sector.

We have convened this meeting with precisely that aim - as a platform for all stakeholders to contribute their ideas and recommendations to better address the phenomenon, and to build momentum towards agreeing on concrete measures of cooperation to improve the situation.

Without stronger international cooperation and genuine responsibility-sharing among the affected states, these movements will continue to take a high toll in human lives and cause serious rights violations, feed criminal networks and negatively impact receiving communities, the shipping industry, and the success of development efforts.

At a time when an unprecedented number of people are forced to flee conflict and persecution across the world, barring them from accessing protection further afield is the opposite of what is needed. Whether by land or sea, there have been people fleeing for their safety throughout human history, and today's global turmoil seems to suggest that they will continue to do so in the future. The way societies deal with the needs of those arriving at their shores and borders looking for protection is not just a question of their security. It is also a mark of their strength and humanity.

Thank you very much.