UNHCR and IOM appeal to European leaders to tackle Mediterranean deaths

Refugees and migrants rescued by Spanish Coast Guard vessel the Maria Zambrano prepare to disembark at the port of Algeciras in southern Spain.
© UNHCR/Markel Redondo

Ahead of this week’s meeting of European Union (EU) Heads of State and Government, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and IOM, the UN Migration Agency, are together appealing to European leaders to urgently take steps to address this year’s record rate of drownings on the Mediterranean Sea.

The leaders of the two organizations warn that political discourse concerning refugees and migrants, particularly those arriving by boat, has become dangerously toxic in some countries, even at a time when arrivals to Europe are declining. This narrative is stoking unnecessary fears, making it harder for countries to work together and blocking progress towards solutions.

“The current tenor of the political debate – painting a picture of Europe under siege – is not only unhelpful but completely out of touch with reality,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Arrival numbers are falling but the rate at which people are losing their lives is on the rise. We cannot forget that we are talking about human lives. Debate is welcome – scapegoating refugees and migrants for political gain is not.”

“Perilous irregular migration is in no one’s interest. Together we must invest more in regular migration, enhanced mobility and integration to foster growth and development that benefits both sides of the Mediterranean,” said IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino.

With more than 1,700 lives lost since the start of 2018, the rate at which people are drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean has risen sharply this year. In September alone, one person died or went missing for every eight people who crossed to Europe on the Central Mediterranean, in large part due to reduced search and rescue capacity.

In addition to the need to enhance search and rescue capacity, UNHCR and IOM have proposed a workable regional arrangement that would make disembarkation and processing predictable and swift.

UNHCR and IOM urge European leaders to focus this week’s discussions on the practical solutions that are urgently needed and ensuring responsibilities are properly being shared among European States. At the same time we welcome strides taken to date by some EU Member States towards responsibility-sharing in search and rescue and post-disembarkation solutions for refugees and migrants.

UNHCR and IOM meanwhile also remind European leaders to remain focused on the implementation of the priorities already agreed earlier in the Valletta Political Declaration and Plan of Action, where States expressed profound solidarity in addressing the root causes of displacement and irregular migration, while supporting countries who receive large numbers of refugees and migrants.

Greater and more effective support from EU leaders is also needed for developing long-term structural solutions, which foster conditions in countries of origin and transit that provide opportunities for people to live in dignity.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Geneva:
Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR – [email protected] , +41 79 580 8702

In Brussels:
Melissa Julian, IOM – [email protected], +32 2 287 71 33/ +32 473 28 11 65
Maeve Patterson, UNHCR – [email protected], +32 470 99 54 35

In Nicosia:
Emilia Strovolidou, UNHCR – [email protected] , +357 2235 9057