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"Respecting Human Rights in the Context of Migration Flows in the Mediterranean"

Speeches and statements

"Respecting Human Rights in the Context of Migration Flows in the Mediterranean"

15 September 2015
European Parliament AFET/DROI/LIBE committees | Joint Event on Migration
Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Brussels

Edited transcript of extemporaneous remarks

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

59 years ago we had the first large European and the first large UNHCR refugee crisis after the end of the cycle of displacement caused by the Second World War. It was the Hungarian crisis of 1956. At that time, 200,000 Hungarians fled - 180,000 to Austria and 20,000 to Yugoslavia. There was no Schengen regime then, but the borders were open and they came to Austria and Yugoslavia. And it was possible to launch a programme of relocation and resettlement from Austria in which 140,000 Hungarians were moved from Austria to several European countries and out of Europe. The relocation to other European countries took less than three months. At that time, European integration was only starting, there was no European Union, but at least the part of it that could be united was united, to protect the Hungarian victims of oppression and dictatorship.

Today, unfortunately, we may have a European Union, but Europe is no longer united; Europe is divided. This division translates itself in the fact that our colleagues here had enormous difficulties to get their programs approved in the Council, but also in the fact that in the midst of this chaotic situation, member states try to take their own measures, and borders are differently managed, some in a very harsh way, others in a softer way. It is as if each country in Europe was a piece of a puzzle, but when you put the pieces together you discover that they do not match anymore. There is no such space as a Europe acting together to grant protection to those in need, and this is causing enormous suffering to people. In interviews at the different borders, especially with Syrians, we see an enormous perplexity, uncertainty, people do not know what is going to happen; many feel fear, and some despair.

This causes a terrible image for Europe in the world. And in the battle of values - because the question of the Islamic State and other movements is not only one of military operations, it is essentially an ideological battle of values - Europe has a very important tool, a very important contribution to global civilization, and that's the values of the enlightenment, tolerance, la primauté de la raison. In this battle of values, a Europe that welcomes Syrians is something that can help to defeat the Islamic State, but a Europe that rejects Syrians, especially if they are Muslims, is something that helps their propaganda. We need to be aware of this, because it is a central battle in what is happening in our world today, and it is directly linked to our own security globally and in Europe.

At the same time the current chaotic situation creates a fantastic environment for smugglers to prosper, and also helps opportunists, people who have no protection requirements but who just join the flow in all this confusion. For instance we saw Pakistanis speaking Greek at the Hungarian border, people who had been living in Greece and now saw a chance to move to another country.

In this context, it is important to understand the nature and the meaning of the different flows, and what we can expect from them. There is today a clear difference between the central Mediterranean and the eastern Mediterranean. In the central Mediterranean, we have a flow that is linked to the traditional relationship between Europe and Africa, whose future will depend a lot on the economic and demographic evolutions of Europe and Africa. This flow is complicated by two factors - first the Eritrean protection problem, and second, the crisis in Libya. Here - and I was very happy with what I heard earlier - the key question that can mitigate this phenomenon is an adequate development cooperation between Europe and Africa. That is not only a question of money, but a question of the kinds of projects and the kind of cooperation that will be established. This cooperation needs to be linked more strongly with the origins of unnecessary human mobility. There are not many good examples of that, sometimes development cooperation even helps to uproot people instead of allowing them to prosper in their own communities. But there are some cases that should be studied, namely the Spanish experience in Western Africa that indeed helped to diminish the unnecessary flows that were taking place to the Canary Islands just a few years ago.

The central Mediterranean has seen in the last few weeks around 500 to 1,000 arrivals per day, but when one looks at the eastern Mediterranean, we now have about 4,000 people per day coming into the Greek islands, and that is becoming essentially a refugee flow. In recent surveys, 83% of the people crossing were Syrians, then Afghans and Iraqis and other nationalities. This is a massive refugee flow into Greece, and it is as a refugee flow that it needs to be treated. In the central Mediterranean, we have a mixed flow with a large number of economic migrants, and obviously that generates different approaches in the way to deal with the situation.

Now, why this spike all of a sudden? Of course last year there was a big growth in arrivals in the central Mediterranean. This year they are more or less at the same level, but this is a trend that will grow with the demographics of Africa and Europe. But the sudden spike within this growing trend, in my interpretation, is for a combination of three reasons. First, we have now had Syrians in the neighbouring countries for nearly five years. They have lost hope in a political solution in Syria. Second, the living conditions in the neighbouring countries have been dramatically deteriorating. We have to acknowledge that this huge population increase in countries like Jordan or Lebanon, even in Turkey to some extent, has a dramatic impact in the economies and societies and is causing big problems in these countries. And in this situation, refugees are not allowed to work, have no form to organize their lives, and as savings disappear, the living conditions deteriorate more and more and more, and hope tends to disappear as well. To make things worse, in 2015 we have witnessed a decrease in international assistance. The key element in this decrease was the lack of funding for WFP, which had to implement a few months ago a cut in food assistance by about 40% in the neighbouring countries. And that gave people the impression that they were going to be abandoned. You can imagine - no hope to go back, living conditions getting worse and worse in the countries that have made enormous efforts to receive refugees but that have no capacity to provide for them, and now the feeling that the international community is forgetting about them with new crises starting elsewhere. In this situation Europe appeared as the only salvation, and you know how social media work, and how smugglers immediately enter into action, and so this started to grow and gain the dimension we have witnessed in the recent past.

In this context, it is clear for me that massive humanitarian support to the refugees, and massive structural and economic support to the neighbouring countries are absolute preconditions to allow for this flow to be contained. At the same time, I believe it is important to note that the possible solution we see mentioned in some media - the possibility for Europe to send people back to the countries neighbouring Syria - is one that is unconceivable, both legally and politically as well as morally.

Now, in this context, we were all very disappointed with yesterday's decisions. I don't want to enter into questions that are internal to the European institutions, but I was reminded of my time in government, when we had an earthquake and a number of serious floods in Portugal, and emergency situations like the present one. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if the Council of Ministers had met about the relocation of people impacted by the earthquake and had been unable to reach an agreement and decided to meet again the following month to then present to the parliament a document about that relocation, to then come back to the Council… I mean, we are facing an emergency situation, and when I heard that the next time the Council will meet to reconsider this is in October, I really thought "this cannot be".

I think it is important to have a Plan B, and I am very happy that Commissioner Avramopoulos already put many of its elements on the table. The first thing is to move ahead with what is possible immediately, and that means to create adequate reception conditions. I don't like the "hotspot" name, but what it means is an adequate reception center where people can be welcomed, properly assisted and then registered and screened to detect who is in need of protection and who is not, and for those in need of protection to be relocated and those who are not, to be returned. But this is something that - let's be clear, we are in very close contact with the Greek government, and they are now making an enormous effort - but the Greek government does not have the capacity to put this in place. And so the mobilization of all European agencies, EASO, Frontex etc., but also of people from the member states, with capacities of UNHCR, IOM and the civil society, is essential to get these centers to work effectively.

But the governments - and I believe the Italian government will be of the same position - will only accept these hotspots if relocation starts. I was very happy to hear that relocation can start immediately, and I understand it will start with the 40,000 that were approved, but that some countries might volunteer to anticipate their quotas in the perspective of a future approval of the 160,000 to allow for momentum to be gained.

And then there is a third element of the Plan B which I think is essential. I don't know what will happen with the Hungarian border, but if it is to remain as at present, I believe an emergency response needs to be provided to Serbia and maybe also fYRoM, but centered in Serbia. We need to quickly create reception capacities and assistance capacities and probably start, from Serbia, the program of relocation or resettlement or humanitarian admission that was foreseen for Hungary if Hungary would be receiving a large number of refugees. As it was said by others, the winter is coming, and if there is no massive support to Serbia and fYRoM, and if we do not use Serbia as a platform and support them for relocation and return, we will be stuck with a very difficult problem to solve. The Serbian government has been extremely correct in its handling of the crisis and in all our discussions until now.

I would also like to underline what was said by my good friend Federica Mogherini: we need to combine a much more effective combatting of smuggling and trafficking with a much bigger offer of legal ways for people to enter Europe. That includes resettlement, and I am glad that the resettlement project was approved. It also includes humanitarian admission, family reunification, visas that can be given for all kinds of reasons. To do this would mean that we do not only provide reception and relocation for the people that arrive by boat, but one of our objectives should also be to reduce as much as possible the number of people forced to take these tragic routes in which so many perish and in which so many are exploited in horrible situations.

I would like to say that we will be entirely at the disposal of the Council, of the Commission and of course of the member states, to do everything we can, together with IOM, to support all these aspects. But let me end with what was also said by Federica Mogherini: this looks unmanageable, but it is perfectly manageable. But for something to be manageable, you have to manage it. And that means you need to have the reception, the relocation and all the instruments in place and working effectively.

4,000 people per day in the Greek islands is of course a big flow. But the number of people displaced by conflict in the world per day last year was 42,500. We now have one third of the population in Lebanon that is Palestinian and Syrian; Syrians are one fourth of the population. If one looks at other situations in Africa and in other parts of the world, we see extremely poor countries that open their borders and provide what they have - and even what they do not have - to support people. I will never forget, when the Côte d'Ivoire crisis erupted, I went to Liberia to a refugee hosting village. And before any international assistance had arrived, the people of that Liberian village were giving the refugees coming from Côte d'Ivoire the seeds of rice that they were going to use for the next planting season. They were condemning themselves to starve, unless international support would be given, just to allow for the refugees to survive. This kind of example from very poor people is something that the European Union should meditate on - with all the economic problems and difficulties and all the crises, by which my own country was also deeply affected, we still live in a privileged part of the world. And we have an enormous responsibility when we look around and see what is happening today around Europe, knowing that sooner or later, if we do not do the right thing, we will pay a heavy price.

Thank you.