UNHCR calls for greater search and rescue coordination

News comment on search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean by the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Gillian Triggs.

Crew from the Migrant Offshore Aid Station search and rescue vessel Phoenix rescue people adrift in the Mediterranean Sea in November 2016. © UNHCR/Giuseppe Carotenuto

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is calling for greater coordination, solidarity and responsibility-sharing, in view of the increased movements of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite the extremely difficult circumstances faced by many countries at present due to COVID-19, the protection of lives and fundamental human rights must remain at the forefront of our decision-making. Rescue at sea is a humanitarian imperative and an obligation under international law.

Legitimate public health concerns can be addressed through quarantine, health checks, and other measures. However, delayed rescue or failure to disembark boats in distress put the lives in danger. A safe port for disembarkation should be provided without delay, together with a prompt agreement on how to share responsibility amongst States for hosting people once they reach safety on dry land.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Libya, as well as the routine detention of disembarked migrants and asylum-seekers, who often face overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and other human rights concerns, UNHCR reiterates that no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea.

The EU Mediterranean coastal States bear a major responsibility for sea arrivals. Those few states who are regularly allowing disembarkation must be able to count on the predictable solidarity of others through an effective and timely relocation mechanism, as well as support for reception facilities.

Reception capacity constraints are also a main reason challenging the disembarkation of refugees and migrants who have been rescued at sea after harrowing journeys across the Mediterranean.

In this context, UNHCR is urging stronger intra-EU solidarity with the EU Mediterranean coastal States receiving refugees and migrants and calling for other Member States to show greater responsibility-sharing in the form of relocation support. Collective efforts on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea are essential to save lives at sea.

Beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, UNHCR is calling for renewed efforts to reduce the loss of life at sea, including increased search and rescue capacity and a predictable disembarkation mechanism.