High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges, Protection at Sea. Closing remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, 11 December 2014

Edited transcript of extemporaneous remarks


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to express my very deep gratitude to the co-chairs of the breakout groups, the panelists, and also to all participants representing Governments, civil society, NGOs, the private sector, the shipping industry as well as academia, for the excellent quality of the debate. A debate that moved not only our minds, but also our hearts. The suffering we have witnessed in the films and through our own experiences is appalling, and it requires a total commitment from all of us. I met Syrian refugees in Cairo a few months ago and saw their determination to move onwards, under any conditions, with whatever risks, because they wanted to find safety in a place where they would be able to have a new life and fully use their capacities, also to the benefit of their new societies. To be honest, I thought that if I was in their position, I would have wanted to have the courage to do the same, and I feel I would have had the right to do the same.

Now, it's time to conclude. We will prepare a summary report that will reflect the debates of the breakout sessions and the plenary discussion. This means that what you are going to hear now is not a chairperson's summary, but my own contribution to the debate. You will forgive me if it won't be well-structured, because the problems we are facing, as it was said, are very complex problems with no easy solution.

Indeed, this is the starting point: there is no easy solution. And so, those who believe that the easy solution is to close doors should forget about it. When a door is closed, people will open a window. If the window is closed, people will dig a tunnel. If there is a basic need of survival, a basic need of protection, people will move, whatever obstacles are put in their way - those obstacles will only make their journeys more dramatic. So there is no easy solution. The problem is complex, and there are many different perspectives that were expressed during this debate. In my experience, both as a politician and now as a humanitarian, when problems are complex, the best is to stick to principles. And in this case, I think there is a number of principles and values that we can all share.

First, saving lives. Secondly, respect human rights and the rule of law. Thirdly, promote tolerance. And, finally, value diversity in a world where, I believe, all societies will become multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious. It is better that we learn to live in these circumstances, which enrich our societies, instead of trying to avoid what, in my opinion, is totally unavoidable in the modern world. I was working in Government, I understand that Governments need to take security concerns and the welfare of their societies into account. And it would be totally naïve to present proposals that would disregard the obligation of a Government to ensure the security of its country and its population. But I strongly believe that it is perfectly possible to take security concerns and welfare of a society into account and at the same time respect the principles I mentioned. They are not contradictory. It is a Government's responsibility to find a way to match these objectives that, in my opinion, are an absolute need in today's world.

People are not only on the move at sea. As it was just said by the Deputy High Commissioner, those at sea are only a minority of the people moving. When we talk about irregular migration, it's good not to forget that the largest number of the so-called irregular migrants come legally to a country and then overstay. So problems can be much more complex than what we think they are.

The people on the move we are talking about are a mixed group. We have refugees, asylumseekers, stateless people, people forced to flee because the environment has totally destroyed their communities, or people trying to escape extreme deprivation, together with other forms of migration. The problem is that they all use the same routes and they are all in the hands of the same vicious groups of traffickers and smugglers. The people are different, they have different motivations, there are different bodies of international law that apply to them, but they all have rights and they all have dignity that must be respected. And I think this is the way we need to look at a group of people coming on a boat, knowing that all of them are human beings, with human dignity and human rights. And this, I think, is the starting point for any policy to address them.

Now, when something is complex, as everybody said, we need to make sure that there is effective international cooperation. This is not something that can be dealt with by one country, by one agency, or by one NGO alone. There are several forms of cooperation that need to be strengthened. First, the cooperation between countries of origin and first asylum, countries of transit and countries of destination. A few examples are now on the table; the Khartoum Process is one of them. These are absolutely essential forms of cooperation that need to be strengthened. Second, regional cooperation mechanisms. We have the Bali Process, we have those within the European Union, we have many others around the world. Regional cooperation mechanisms need to be strengthened because for many problems, there are only regional solutions. Then another important aspect is the cooperation between governments, civil society and the private sector. Within governments, the cooperation among different departments is also necessary, a "whole-of-government" approach. I remember being in government in my country, we had been a country of emigration for centuries and were just becoming a country of immigration, and it was not clear who was responsible for what. The first thing needed was to make sure that we had a government policy that dealt with integration of the migrants into the community. A whole-of government approach, cooperation between governments, civil society and the private sector, and cooperation with and among international organizations is needed. I was very happy that we managed to have a Joint Statement with IOM, IMO, OHCHR and UNODC. I was also very pleased to hear that, yesterday, updated guidelines for search and rescue were agreed by the International Chamber of Shipping and IMO, together with UNHCR. International cooperation is essential at all levels.

We are discussing protection at sea, but let's not forget that protection at sea starts with protection on land. The first priority of the international community should be to address the root causes of forced displacement. Not the reasons for voluntary movement of people, which has always existed and will always be necessary, but the root causes of forced displacement. A lot more needs to be done in early warning mechanisms, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. I would say that the world is even losing capacity in these areas, and this needs to be reversed. At the same time, much more needs to be done to connect economic development cooperation and human mobility. Most of the economic development cooperation policies that are on the table do not address the question of human mobility, even if one looks at the post-2015 development agenda now, human mobility is still very scarcely referred to there. Decision-makers across the world are not yet really conscious that economic development cooperation and policies and development models need to seriously take human mobility into account in order to prevent its undesirable forms.

It is also very important to recognize that we have protection gaps everywhere today: in countries of origin and first asylum, in countries of transit and in countries of destination. Genuine international cooperation is important to address these protection gaps at all levels. First of all, at the level of countries of first asylum, if we talk about refugees. Many countries of first asylum do not have the capacity to be able to provide adequate living conditions to people and it would be very important to give them enough economic support to make it possible for refugees to have the right to work, to have full access to education and to health systems. If one goes to a camp and sees the limited life people lead in a camp, there is obviously a protection gap. Of course, countries need to be helped to be able to overcome this situation. There is also a protection gap in countries of transit. We must do everything possible to increase their protection capacity, and this also requires close cooperation. And let us not forget the new tools of protection: temporary protection mechanisms, labour arrangements, and even in extreme situations, the possibility for countries of destination to do refugee status determination in countries of transit. This can only be an option under the condition that all protection requirements are met, and that people found in need of protection are resettled into the country of destination. When we talk about protection in countries of transit, these options cannot be a way to dump responsibilities from the north to the south. This is why we need to address the protection gaps and the different approaches between countries of destination in the global north. This requires strong commitment by governments and cooperation between governments, the civil society and the private sector.

But in any case, even if all these measures are taken, one thing is clear: we will always have people risking their lives at sea. This means that we need to increase the global capacity for search and rescue. Now, we had four very important roundtables on four regions. And it is clear for me; when we talk about the Bay of Bengal, when we talk about the Gulf of Aden, when we talk about the Caribbean, the countries of the regions need the support of international community in order to enhance their capacity of search and rescue at sea, and also their capacity of protecting the people that are rescued. And this is a common responsibility. We cannot just hope that the countries in the region will do whatever they can, we need to do everything we can to support them. As we have seen in the debate, it is not so expensive, it is not so complicated, it requires commitment and agreement on priorities.

As regards the Mediterranean, my appeal for next year is for a robust mechanism of rescue at sea in the Central Mediterranean, which obviously the Triton operation is not supposed to be. And we cannot ask an entity to do something for which that entity has no mandate and no resources. It is obvious that we need a robust capacity - it can be Mare Nostrum, it can be a European Union mechanism, it can be whatever, but we need to have a robust mechanism of protection at sea in the Central Mediterranean. People should not be afraid that this will be a mechanism that will attract more people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Let's be clear: when people are not able to move so much through the Central Mediterranean, they will move more from Turkey to Greece, or from Turkey to the Balkans. And we have had the experiences the other way around. There is not only one route, there are several routes, and smugglers and traffickers know that very well. And they adapt themselves to the situation. We should not underestimate the capacity of adaptation they have to the different tricks that one might try to envisage. It is better not to have any tricks, but instead to do the right thing. And the right thing is to have a robust capacity of search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean.

And then, of course, it is important to create conditions under which the private sector can do its work. I was very impressed by the pride with which these sailors save lives. There is agreement that one of the most important conditions is clear rules of disembarkation in a safe place. And yes, I know, this is complicated, but we need to solve this problem. Especially in those regions that are critical, a common understanding among key member States and key international organizations to clarify any doubts that might still exist is absolutely essential.

We also need to create forms of support to the shipping industry, because it is obvious that those ships and their crews were not made for massive operations where they have to take 200, 300, 400 people on board, when they have a small crew of 12. There are health problems and many others that have to be dealt with. I think we should support this pride to rescue and enhance this capacity to save lives.

Then we have the reception conditions. It is very important that, after everything the people went through, that they can feel welcomed. Think about a Syrian refugee. He or she had to flee a village that was destroyed, and then had to come to a camp under difficult living conditions. Moving on, they had to pay 4 000 dollars to go on an unseaworthy boat and risk their life, maybe even had to watch family members die before finally coming to what they believe is a safe haven. It is very important that that person feels welcome. It is terrible if the first thing that happens to them is to be detained. Detention should be a last resort in matters of national security that might require it. But for all the other situations that clearly are not a threat to national security, it is important to have alternatives to detention. Here again, there are excellent experiences of cooperation between civil society and governments - especially when we talk about children, who should never be detained under any conditions.

We also need to look at the other mechanisms of a proper asylum system: adequate registration, fair treatment of asylum claims, non refoulement, family reunification and integration are principles that need to be respected. We must recognize that the pressure on a State and its capacity to deal with that pressure can differ. Once again, international, especially regional cooperation and responsibility sharing are essential. And they are essential everywhere: ASEAN, IGAD, and particularly the European Union.

We face a kind of paradox in the European Union today. Boats arrive in Italy and Greece and Malta, but half of the asylum claims lodged in the Union are being presented in Sweden and Germany. This means that the European asylum system is essentially dysfunctional. There is only one way to address this issue, and it is based on three pillars. We need states to assume their responsibilities in line with the acquis, we need them to offer solidarity, and we need trust among States. This is the only way how we can arrive at a fair distribution of responsibilities and a fair distribution of protection within the Union - a truly common European asylum system. And of course, if this is true in Europe, it is equally true in other parts of the world.

There are two last issues that are essential. The first one is a stronger capacity to crack down on and combat smuggling and trafficking, while at the same time protecting the victims. It is absolutely crucial not to criminalize the victims of trafficking and smuggling, namely for illegal entry. But much more needs to be done on breaking down this kind of criminal gangs. The international community should use the same level of commitment and resources for fighting human trafficking as for fighting drug trafficking. And I understand why the levels are not the same. We never think that our children would be trafficked, but we always think that they could be victims of drugs. And so I understand that a first tendency is to put drug trafficking as the main priority. But there is no more horrendous crime than the trafficking of human beings, and we have seen in the debates that smuggling is often the first path into trafficking. Strengthening the capacity to fight human trafficking and smuggling requires much more international cooperation, namely on information and intelligence sharing, and probably joint operations in many of the situations where we are dealing with criminal gangs. Their financial circuits exist, they can be monitored and detected, and there are many other instruments that can be effective in helping to break down these groups. Finally, we need to make sure that there is effective criminal prosecution of the leaders. I see criminal prosecution at the level of fishermen, people involved in the smuggling, but not really the bosses of these criminal organizations.

We also need strong information campaigns, locally and with the diaspora, in order to make sure that people are aware of the risks. But I had an experience I will never forget; in Obock, Djibouti, I met people who were waiting on the coast to cross to the other side. They were migrants from Ethiopia, a group of Afars and a group of Oromos. And they were not asking for asylum, they just wanted to cross to have a better life and better job opportunities. And we ried to convince them, together with some colleagues, not to go, and we offered the possibility to bring them back, and they refused. They said, we know exactly what is waiting for us, but we want to go. This highlights that we need to provide much more information. But let's be clear; if we don't address the root causes, information will not be enough.

And finally, the best way to prevent irregular movements is to promote regular movements. This is true for any migration movement in the world. There are very ambitious migration schemes put in place by several countries: the USA, Canada, Australia. Several European countries also have meaningful programs. Much more of this is needed. There are different kinds; permanent migration, circular migration, temporary migration, agreements between countries of origin and countries of destination - many things can be done to boost regular migration movements. And there are many ways to increase legal access to safe territories for people in need of protection: resettlement opportunities, humanitarian admission, flexible visa policies, especially humanitarian visas, labour arrangements, family reunification programs. There are many ways to enhance regular movements and this is the best possible way to prevent irregular ones, even if we know that there will always be some irregular movements. Human mobility has always been with us and I believe it will always be there.

My mother is 91 years old now and permanently has a care-giver with her. I visit her every weekend that I go to Portugal. My country is not in a very good economic situation, we have 14% unemployment etc. But none of the times I've visited her in the last few months have I seen a Portuguese citizen taking care of her, other than the family. The care-giver was always a migrant, which means that even for my mother to be assisted, we need to recognize that migration, as it was said by our German colleague, is part of the solution, not part of the problem of modern societies. And so, in the words of our ICMC colleagues, we will not retreat - I am sure together we will move forward.

Thank you very much.