UNHCR unveils far-reaching proposals for European action in the Mediterranean Sea

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has sent a number of concrete proposals to the European Union to deal with the challenges posed by the thousands of refugees and migrants who risk their lives trying to reach Europe every year.

The proposals, made by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a letter to the European Union, are part of UNHCR's Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI), which aims to encourage wide-ranging discussions with the European Commission and among European states and other concerned stakeholders to address the challenges of mixed migration in the Mediterranean Sea and to save lives.

"We are proposing to the European Union and countries in Europe a number of bold and innovative solutions to address the challenges of mixed migration in the Mediterranean and reduce the number of people losing their lives at sea," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's Director for Europe.

So far this year, around 470 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea, compared to 15 in the same period last year.

"To continue with the status quo is not an option," warned Cochetel, "inaction to address these challenges will only mean more people dying."

UNHCR's new proposals include the establishment of a robust European search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, similar to the Italian Mare Nostrum operation which came to an end last year, and to set up a EU scheme to compensate shipping companies for losses incurred while rescuing people in distress at sea.

UNHCR is also urging the EU to explore solutions to address challenges once refugees arrive in Europe, ensuring adequate support for them and avoiding a few countries having to shoulder the main responsibility for them.

At the moment, most people seeking safety in Europe arrive in a few states in the external border of the EU while, at the same time, a handful of countries, mainly Germany and Sweden, receive the largest number of asylum applications. To address this imbalance, intra-European solidarity is needed. Countries such as Italy and Greece should be supported to adequately receive asylum seekers and process their asylum applications. In addition, UNHCR is proposing a pilot project for the relocation of Syrian refugees who are rescued at sea in Greece and Italy to different countries across Europe, based on a fair distribution system.

Currently, Germany and Sweden alone have received around 56% of all Syrian asylum applications since the conflict started. This pilot project would seek a better distribution of Syrians recognized as refugees, among all countries in the EU and also contribute to reduce the risk of trafficking and exploitation linked to the current onward movements within the EU.

For asylum seekers, the Dublin Regulation, which defines state responsibility for processing asylum claims, should be fully implemented including using all tools available, such as family reunification, unaccompanied children, and the use of discretion for certain cases with more distant family links or other needs. These are tools which have been designed by EU States and should be used effectively.

As Syria's conflict enters its fifth year with almost 4 million refugees, predominantly in the countries neighbouring Syria, increasing legal avenues for Syrian refugees to find protection in Europe is becoming imperative. UNHCR calls on European countries to make larger commitments to receive refugees through sustainable resettlement programmes and to intensify their efforts to increase opportunities for other forms of admission, so that people seeking safety can find it in Europe without having to resort to smugglers and dangerous irregular movements.

More opportunities for resettlement and other alternatives are needed, such as using private sponsorship, humanitarian visas, student and work visas. UNHCR is ready to explore conditions to expand programmes for more resettlement and for other forms of admission to the EU.

"As anti-foreigner rhetoric echoes through Europe, it is important that we remember that refugees are fleeing war and violence in places such as Syria. We need to recognize the positive contributions that they and their families make to the societies in which they live and also honour core European values: protecting lives, human rights and promoting tolerance and diversity," said Cochetel. "UNHCR's proposal includes also efforts to ensure that solid national integration support programmes are developed, and that refugees receive the support they need to contribute to our societies."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR proposals to address current and future arrivals of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants by sea to Europe, March 2015, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/55016ba14.html

Press Contact:

William SPINDLER

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Email: spindler@unhcr.org