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


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving UNHCR the opportunity to address this conference today on the theme of responsibility sharing, which goes to the heart of our work. We are very grateful to the Government of Italy for convening this meeting. Italy has shouldered the lion’s share of the responsibility for search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, which has been no small feat, and is now receiving some of the largest numbers of migrants and refugees disembarked on its shores. Italy’s humanitarian spirit and leadership in this effort is truly commendable, but this is not without its challenges. 

Let us also not forget that what is happening here in Europe represents only the end stages of a long journey for many refugees fleeing from countries beset by conflict and violence or migrants seeking a way out of poverty or needing to support their families back home. In light of this, I would like to suggest that in addition to solidarity and security, we also need to add the protection dimension. It is incumbent upon all of us – on every side of the Mediterranean and beyond – to find a way to better support people on the move both at home and abroad. Let me share with you some considerations for how we might achieve this together.

First and foremost, we need to place the lives and dignity of people on the move at the centre of our endeavours. In this respect, search and rescue is a humanitarian imperative and must remain a top priority. If human beings are in distress at sea, the question is not about their status, but rather saving lives. Everything else is secondary. In 2015, UNHCR, together with the International Maritime Organization [IMO] and the International Chamber of Shipping [ICS], issued guidelines for conducting search and rescue in accordance with international legal standards,[1] and these continue to provide a strong foundation for practical approaches in this area.

But for search and rescue to be truly effective, States need to share more widely the responsibility for both the deployment of ships and disembarkation. More countries could conceivably play some role in this. Depending upon their reception capacities, some countries may be able to receive individuals disembarked temporarily, until such time as they can be evacuated or resettled onwards, or can return to their countries of origin, depending upon their particular circumstances. In another context, for example in Central America, Costa Rica has provided an evacuation platform for people at risk. Other countries, provided they have sufficient support for their asylum systems, may be able to go further and provide disembarked individuals seeking international protection with access to asylum procedures. 

Short of providing ports for disembarkation, a sure sign of solidarity by European Union Member States for countries such as Italy would be to ease criteria for relocation programmes to distribute the responsibility further in light of the exceptional circumstances. States around the world could also help to offset the pressures on host countries and countries of transit by providing significantly more resettlement opportunities and legal migration pathways for people to build dignified lives for themselves in countries beyond the immediate region. The pathway of family reunification, in particular, has the potential to offer far more possibilities for safe, regular admission than many of the schemes currently in place. Such pathways could provide alternatives to dangerous onward journeys across the Mediterranean. 

Second, we need to approach this situation with humility and a willingness to listen. At a time when the numbers of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy are rising, governments, civil society, and the media have been vociferous in their responses. These responses have ranged from fear, blame, and a sense of impending crisis, to empathy and a call upon the better sides of ourselves to respond with humanity and compassion. Amidst this cacophony of voices and competing political agendas, however, the voices we do not hear are those of the thousands of migrants and refugees who lost their lives crossing scorching deserts, or in unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean, or at the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers. In this year alone, more than 2,030 people have already lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, and last year more people died trying to do so than in 2015 at the height of the movements. 

If we are ever to find a way forward, we must not only respond to new arrivals, but also understand and deal with the drivers of these movements – we must address both the causes and effects. This requires that we be willing to listen – to the stories of those who have attempted these journeys, to the communities from where they have come, and to the countries that must cope with the realities of conflict, climate change, and deepening economic inequalities that increase the precariousness of so many lives of people on the move.

This week, UNHCR issued a new report on refugees and migrants who moved onward through Libya.[2] This report showed that to be effective, we must listen closely and carefully. Many of the individuals who shared their stories revealed that they did not leave their home countries with Europe immediately in mind. Rather, more often than not, many migrants in particular were hoping for employment opportunities in Libya and a way out of destitution. It was only when confronted with the dearth of opportunities, violence, or the lack of solutions in countries in their immediate regions, that many migrants and refugees felt they had little choice but to seek solutions further afield. They did so in spite of the prospects of closed borders, the known dangers of entrusting one’s life to smugglers, and extremely limited possibilities of a regular legal status for irregular migrants in most countries. 

These testimonies bring home in a compelling way the regional and international dimensions of these movements. They demonstrate why unilateral measures by individual States to deter arrivals will never provide an answer. If the complexities of the situation are not addressed together in a coherent, joined-up way, we will only ever succeed in diverting problems onto others. This creates space for the growth of the smuggling and trafficking industry. It also means that we are shirking our responsibilities to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Given that the likelihood of deaths on the Mediterranean will only increase without our urgent action, this would be not only a political, but a moral failing.

Third, it is clear then that there is no other way around addressing the phenomenon of mixed migration, except through international cooperation. Responsibility sharing is not just an ephemeral theory or feel-good idea, but a concept developed over decades in both law and practice. For instance, States joined efforts to resettle Hungarian refugees in the 1950s, to respond to the Indochinese crisis, and most recently, for instance, to address the Syria and South Sudan refugee situations. The enduring spirit of such initiatives found reinvigorated expression in the New York Declaration of last year.[3] The New York Declaration provides a platform for us to develop a comprehensive approach for the situation of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean. It provides an opportunity for us to translate the concept of responsibility sharing into concrete realities on the ground. This requires action by many and agreement by all, which means that we need to address the phenomenon of mixed migration through multiple lenses, including the perspectives of countries of origin, transit, and destination. Of course, such distinctions cannot fully capture the realities faced in these countries, many of whom serve as countries of both transit and destination for different groups.

A joined-up approach can better ensure the protection and humane treatment of people at all points along the routes of movement, particularly in countries of transit and destination. There are many good practices that we can build upon for dealing with mixed refugee and migrant flows. UNHCR recently updated the 10-Point Plan in Action on refugee protection and mixed migration,[4] which contains a number of examples from around the world on how to manage these situations in a protection-sensitive manner. It provides guidance on how best to facilitate entry and reception. It suggests screening mechanisms and differentiated procedures to ensure that individuals are channeled into the appropriate processes, so that asylum systems do not become overwhelmed. It also provides tried and tested techniques for identifying and protecting individuals at risk, such as survivors of sexual violence, unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, or victims of trafficking, to ensure that they do not fall prey to violence or exploitation, and can access the supports they urgently require. It further showcases viable alternatives to detention.

Regardless of where refugees and migrants are disembarked, common and coordinated arrangements and standards for receiving them are essential. UNHCR already set out a number of proposals for how to achieve this in the European Union context last December.[5] They include contingency planning for large-scale arrivals, common registration systems that can address protection and security concerns, efficient asylum processing, and safe pathways for admission. These arrangements work best when they are nimble, efficient, and comply with international obligations for refugee and human rights protection. For example, accelerated procedures or group-based decisions, based upon common standards of treatment, as well as expanded pathways for legal migration, could help alleviate undue pressures on asylum systems. Mobile registration and protection teams could be another means to reach refugees wherever they are located in their host communities with a view to identifying and responding to their specific needs.

Regional cooperation is key to combatting trafficking and smuggling. Without a transnational approach that addresses this industry further upstream in the movement and the supply chain, it will be difficult to disrupt these networks. Such an approach could include sanctions against known traffickers and smugglers or companies engaged in the supply chain, for example for boats and engines. It could also involve information campaigns to educate individuals at risk of trafficking in countries of origin. This approach could further develop systems of cooperation between countries of transit and destination that can ensure that victims who come forward can be safe and protected, and perpetrators can be more readily brought to account for their crimes.

Fourth, we need to address the reasons behind migratory pressures on the one hand, and conflict, violence, and human rights abuses on the other. Of course, it is inherently undesirable that people end up in a predicament where they feel compelled to move in the first place. These are people for whom survival lies in migration and flight. Part of UNHCR’s proposals to the European Union therefore also focus on external engagement with countries of origin to resolve conflicts and address the root causes of displacement, as well as with host countries to support them and their local communities so that refugees can get on with their lives wherever they may be living. The roll-out of the comprehensive refugee response framework, as set out in the New York Declaration, in a number of major host countries in Africa, such as Uganda and Ethiopia,  provides an invaluable platform to channel this kind of support. 

In order to formulate an approach that meaningfully engages perspectives of countries all along the routes, a listening exercise is essential – particularly with countries of origin and transit, which are contending with the political, social, and economic complexities of globalization, conflict, and climate change. If we acknowledge that whole economies depend on remittances, for example, then we can think through the kinds of investments needed to stabilize economies in countries of origin – through development support for education, health, and livelihoods. We can also better plan for support for countries of destination through legal migration channels to help address labour shortages. In another example, just recently, ECOWAS concluded a binding regional action plan to address civil registration and statelessness issues, which, if left unaddressed, could be triggers of movement.

Addressing the situation in Libya will be key, and UNHCR and IOM are committed to continue working with States and partners to protect individuals on the move from violence, exploitation, and abuse by criminal networks, and to find ways to support them within their host communities. As we speak, we are ramping up our presence at points of disembarkation, ensuring support for IDPs, prioritizing resettlement solutions for those in need, as well as increasing our access to detention facilities so that alternatives can be found and this practice can end. We are also working out methods of communicating more effectively with refugees and migrants who may be considering taking these journeys to ensure that we are always listening.

In conclusion, the Mediterranean has become a symbol of tragedy in recent years, as the horrors of deaths at sea have gained increasing prominence and international attention. But it can also be a symbol of hope and cooperation, as it has been for centuries, joining three continents, and enabling the economic, social, and cultural exchanges that have given birth to whole civilizations. If we can reframe our current understanding of the Mediterranean as a future opportunity for collaboration rather than a threat to our identities and ways of life, it will be possible to see more clearly what can be achieved. With a collaborative approach that places people at the centre and builds upon common principles, the Mediterranean can become a symbol for collective action, solidarity, and most importantly, our enduring humanity.

Thank you.


[1] UNHCR, Rescue at Sea. A Guide to Principles and Practice as Applied to Refugees and Migrants, January 2015

[2] Mixed Migration Trends in Libya: Changing Dynamics and Protection Challenges

[3] New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, UN Doc. A/71/L.1.

[4] UNHCR, The 10-Point Plan in Action: 2016 Update, December 2016

[5] UNHCR, Better protecting refugees in the EU and globally