Statement to the Inter-Ministerial Conference "A Shared Responsibility for a Common Goal: Solidarity and Security"

Excellencies,                                                                  

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks for inviting UNHCR to this discussion. This conference gives us the opportunity to take stock of what we have been able to accomplish collectively since July 2017 in addressing this complex and mixed flow of people, including migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, and spanning Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. A particular expression of admiration and gratitude goes to our host, Italy, for its continued, strong engagement to save lives in the Mediterranean and admit those in need. Although the numbers have decreased substantially over the past years, more than 172,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2017. The majority continue to come to Italy, with over 4,700 having arrived since the beginning of this month. And just last week, we received the sad news of further drownings, bringing the death and missing toll now to 321 this year.

Of late, we have been reminded again of the extent of the tragedy that so many people have endured in their desperate journeys over land and by sea. They have suffered brutal violence, slavery-like conditions, and exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and criminals. Many have been subjected to sexual assault, detained under horrific conditions, and tortured repeatedly. The testimonies of those who have survived such ordeals demand our continued urgent attention.

Despite the extremely complex situation, we do have some cause for hope. Already, UNHCR and IOM are providing life-saving assistance at points of disembarkation. UNHCR is gaining increasing access to detention centres in Libya, and last year managed to negotiate the release of over 1,400 refugees and asylum-seekers. Much remains to be done on this front, however. Alternatives to the detention of these deeply vulnerable individuals are urgently needed. We still need to establish proper reception facilities for those disembarked or otherwise in need, and to gain unhindered access to all detention centres. A registration system is also urgently required to help track and prevent disappearances, and we need to strengthen systems for identifying people in need of international protection.  It is essential that all people in need of international protection be able to access it without discrimination. And we need to ensure that our staff and partners have the support they require to operate safely within the country.

A recent positive development has been our work, in cooperation with the Government of Niger, to establish an evacuation platform in Niger. Already, we have evacuated 676 refugees from detention centres or other areas in Libya. The majority were evacuated to this new platform, to be considered for resettlement to third countries; another 162 were evacuated to Italy; and two were evacuated to a similar platform in Romania. If we maintain the current pace, some 2,000 refugees will be evacuated by the end of March.

More countries have also stepped up their efforts to support this initiative, offering resettlement places for these traumatized individuals. Canada, Australia, the United States, France, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Italy, Malta, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Portugal have together made offers of nearly 17,000 places for refugees in 15 countries along the Central Mediterranean route. This includes 2,280 places for resettlement out of Niger, and 1,100 for resettlement directly out of Libya. This marks some progress towards the goal of securing 40,000 resettlement places called for by the High Commissioner last September, and we hope that more countries, particularly in the European Union, will follow suit. We are also encouraged by the recently established joint task force of the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN) in this area.

Both the decrease in numbers crossing the Central Mediterranean, as well as the growing number of resettlement places, point to progress in cooperation to address the situation. However, the focus must not only be on lowering numbers, but also on the human side of this phenomenon. The protection of people must remain at the heart of search and rescue operations. The efforts of Italy, EUNAVFOR Med, some EU Member States, other coastal States, NGOs, and the shipping industry to save lives and avoid security incidents are an important expression of this. We hope that more States will engage in disembarking those who are rescued to ensure that they are taken to situations of safety. Also, a broader range of governmental authorities in Libya, such as those involved in immigration and asylum, protecting victims of trafficking, and prosecuting traffickers, could reinforce ongoing efforts to prevent deaths at sea.

Looking ahead, foremost, it is important to keep the situation in perspective. Human mobility is a reality that we need to accept if we want to ensure the safety and security of both those on the move and the communities where they are situated along the routes. A focus on deterrence, containment, or prevention of movements will not work. Attempting to do so risks being an exercise in self-defeat. Addressing such movements to ensure that they are safe and regular, and can benefit both those on the move and the communities where they live and contribute, would be the true marker of success.

This requires that we find ways to improve the lives, security, and opportunities of people on the move, or potentially on the move, within a framework of sustainable development, safety, and dignity in all countries along these routes. The phenomenon we are discussing today is not new, and it brings home quite clearly the connections between global inequities, conflict, and violence. It is one with international dimensions that implicate each and every one of us in different ways. It requires that we each find a way to contribute to a collective and coherent approach that addresses the needs and concerns of the individuals and communities affected.

Without such an approach, we will only see more unilateral and piecemeal measures that will merely divert movements and problems onto others, thereby providing even more fodder for the smuggling and trafficking industry to thrive. We have already discerned shifts in smuggling and trafficking patterns to more remote and dangerous routes. While the numbers going through Niger to Libya have somewhat decreased, the numbers going through Algeria and Morocco and from western and eastern Africa through Chad appear to have increased slightly. To curb smuggling and trafficking, in particular, it will be important to employ rigorous measures, such as freezing assets, travel bans, disrupting supply of revenue and materials, and prosecutions, while also increasing the access of victims of trafficking to protection and shelter. At the same time, it is important to ensure that anti-smuggling measures do not inadvertently result in placing persons on the move at greater risk.

Furthermore, such an approach requires that we recognize and support the critical role that many countries in Africa play as host countries, providing refuge to hundreds of thousands of refugees, often for decades. In the spirit of the New York Declaration, it is incumbent upon the international community to share this tremendous responsibility through development funding for education, health, and livelihoods; humanitarian support; conflict resolution; measures to strengthen asylum systems to make them more accessible; and economic opportunities for all. This ties in directly with ongoing endeavors to facilitate more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing at the global level. In particular, next week, we will start formal consultations with all UN Member States and observers on the zero draft of the Global Compact on Refugees, which is envisaged to be adopted by the UN General Assembly later in the year.

At the same time, while our efforts to bolster development and livelihood opportunities in countries of origin and transit can go a long way towards stabilizing situations, they will neither bring an end to human flows nor obviate the need for third country solutions. The EC and several European States have provided critical support, but the humanitarian needs in countries of origin and transit continue to outpace available funding. Our programmes in African countries related to the Central Mediterranean situation, for example, remain seriously underfunded.   

When refugees remain in protracted states of limbo without legal status or opportunities, or when they are separated from close family members abroad, they may feel compelled to move onwards in search of solutions. It will therefore also be key to invest significantly in regular pathways to solutions in third countries, such as family reunification, labour mobility schemes, and educational programmes. These continue to be important alternatives to entrusting one’s life to smugglers or traffickers. Most notably, the pathway of family reunification still offers far more possibilities for safe, regular admission than many of the resettlement schemes currently in place.

It is equally critical that Europe remains, as President Juncker noted, “the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge”. At a time when we are seeing a retrenchment into populist politics and xenophobia in some quarters, it is more crucial than ever that European countries ensure continued access to asylum on their territories and not shift this onto countries already coping with massive challenges. This is all the more necessary as a considerable percentage of individuals arriving in Europe are in need of international protection or have compelling humanitarian needs, such as unaccompanied children or victims of trafficking. Nearly a quarter of those arriving from the western Africa route and three-fourths from the eastern Africa route have already received protection in Europe.

This necessitates enhancing systems for identifying those who need international or other forms of protection. Accelerated procedures for identifying such individuals in a fair and efficient manner could achieve this, guaranteeing protection for those who need it and pursuing other avenues, including return and readmission, for those who do not. We also need to make sure we know the profiles and needs of those whom we are dealing with so that our responses can be tailored and targeted appropriately. This requires that we cooperate further on data collection and analysis.

Any approach to managing these movements also needs to recognize that many developing countries’ economies are deeply intertwined with those of the industrialized world. As much as developing countries may depend on remittances to keep their economies afloat, industrialized ones may be dependent on migrant workers, particularly to help fill labour shortages. This points to the importance of engaging in a continuous listening exercise with all affected countries, communities, and individuals to develop a more nuanced analysis of the situation and ensure that measures taken do not occur at the expense of the individuals – both the individuals abroad and their families and communities back home.

And, importantly, we must listen to the concerns of the Libyan people inside the country, where efforts to reinvigorate the economy and develop governance structures are being undertaking in an extremely challenging environment. As a result of conflict and instability, nearly one million Libyans in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, and many are internally displaced. UNHCR therefore has been ramping up efforts to support IDPs alongside its activities to protect and assist refugees in the country. We also know that evacuation will not be a solution for all of the 46,700 registered refugees and asylum-seekers currently in Libya, and other forms of assistance and solutions must be found. We need to keep these realities in mind when undertaking efforts to address human mobility in Libya, so that the measures we take, however well-intentioned they may be, do not overshadow or undermine the important work being done to find political solutions in the country.

This listening exercise is already well underway, and just recently UNHCR facilitated discussions at Chatham House in London among some countries of origin, transit, and destination to identify areas of common concern that require more concerted action, many of which were previously reflected in the Valletta Joint Action Plan, but need much more attention. For example, we discussed how best to support civil registration and documentation more broadly beyond the objective of facilitating returns. States also considered how they could most effectively trace and identify their citizens who have gone missing on their way to or inside Libya. They proposed ways to expand transnational programming for victims of trafficking and to strengthen protection systems for unaccompanied children along the routes. They also considered how to engage diaspora communities responsibly in addressing some of these concerns and mitigating the inherent risks.

In conclusion, it is our hope that by aligning multilateral engagement and bilateral priorities along the routes leading to the Central Mediterranean and Europe, we can together secure more predictable and effective support for everyone – and ultimately, better protection for those who need it most.

Thank you.