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Focus on saving lives, says UNHCR, as numbers of people taking to the seas in search of asylum or migration passes 348,000 globally

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Focus on saving lives, says UNHCR, as numbers of people taking to the seas in search of asylum or migration passes 348,000 globally

10 December 2014

UNHCR warned today that the international community was losing its focus on saving lives amid confusion among coastal nations and regional blocs over how to respond to the growing number of people making risky sea journeys in search of asylum or migration.

With preparations under way for the opening later today in Geneva of UNHCR's 2014 High Commissioner's Dialogue - an informal policy discussion forum whose focus this year is Protection at Sea - High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said some governments are increasingly seeing keeping foreigners out as being a higher priority than upholding asylum.

"This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars," Guterres said. "Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage."

The clandestine nature of these sea crossings makes reliable comparisons with previous years difficult, but available data points to 2014 being a record high. According to estimates from coastal authorities and information from confirmed interdictions and other monitoring, at least 348,000 people have risked such journeys worldwide since the start of January. Historically, a principal driver has been migration, but in in 2014 the number of asylum seekers involved has grown.

Europe, facing conflicts to its south (Libya), east (Ukraine), and southeast (Syria/Iraq) is currently seeing the largest number of sea arrivals. Although not all are people needing asylum, more than 207,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean since the start of January - almost three times the previous known high of about 70,000 in 2011 when the Libyan civil war was in full swing. For the first time, people from refugee producing countries (mainly Syria and Eritrea) have in 2014 become a major component in this tragic flow, accounting for almost 50 per cent of the total.

In addition to the Mediterranean, there are at least three other major sea routes in use today both by migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution: In the Horn of Africa region 82,680 people crossed the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea between 1 January and the end of November en route mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen or onwards to Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Persian Gulf. In Southeast Asia, it is estimated that 54,000 people have undertaken sea crossings so far in 2014, most of them departing from Bangladesh or Myanmar and heading to Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. In the Caribbean, at least 4,775 people are known to have taken to boats between 1 January and 1 December this year, hoping to flee poverty or in search of asylum.

And many die or fall victim to international organized crime in the process of making these journeys. Worldwide, UNHCR has received information of 4,272 reported deaths this year. Some 3,419 of these have been on the Mediterranean - making it the deadliest route of all. In Southeast Asia, it's estimated that 540 people have died in their attempts to cross the Bay of Bengal. In the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, at least 242 lives have been lost as of December 8, while in the Caribbean the reported number of dead or missing as of the start of December was 71. People smuggling networks are meanwhile flourishing, operating with impunity in areas of instability or conflict, and profiting from human cargoes that are driven by desperation.

Guterres said that by focusing on isolated elements to a problem that by its nature is multi-layered and trans-national - often involving routes that stretch across multiple borders and over thousands of kilometres - governments were finding themselves unable to either stem the flow or stop people dying along the journey.

"You can't stop a person who is fleeing for their life by deterrence, without escalating the dangers even more," said Guterres. "The real root causes have to be addressed, and this means looking at why people are fleeing, what prevents them from seeking asylum by safer means, and what can be done to crack down on the criminal networks who prosper from this, while at the same time protecting their victims. It also means having proper systems to deal with arrivals and distinguish real refugees from those who are not."

This year's High Commissioner's Dialogue starts on Wednesday and runs through Thursday. Attending it are representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations, coast guards, members of academia, plus heads of and representatives from partner international organizations including IOM, UNODC, OHCHR, and IMO.

Additional Information:

Accompanying multimedia elements including video, photos, infographics, and background information is available at

The morning of the first day of the High Commissioner's Dialogue is open to media representatives accredited with the Geneva Palais Press Office ( We are also expecting to livestream the opening session at

For interview availability and other questions, please contact UNHCR's Geneva press team. Their details below:


Geneva (GMT + 1)

Adrian Edwards, Head of News & Spokesperson

+41 79 557 9120 / [email protected]

Babar Baloch, Communications Officer (Asia & Americas)

+41 79 557 9106 / [email protected]

Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications & Spokesperson for High Commissioner Guterres

+41 79 557 9122 / [email protected]

Karin de Gruijl, Senior Communications Officer (East, Central Africa)

+ 41 79 255 9123 / [email protected]

Francis Markus, Senior Communications Officer (North Africa / Horn of


+41 79 301 1966 / [email protected]

Ariane Rummery, Senior Communications Officer (Syria / Iraq)

+41 79 200 7617 / [email protected]

Mediterranean (GMT + 1 except for Athens which is GMT+2)

Carlotta Sami, Southern Europe Spokesperson (Rome)

+39 335 679 4746 / [email protected]

Maria Jesus-Vega, Spain Spokesperson (Madrid)

+34 670 661 263 / [email protected]

Ketty Kehayioylou, Greece Spokesperson (Athens)

+30 694 02 77 485 / [email protected]

Horn of Africa (GMT + 3)

Nick Stanton, Yemen Spokesperson (Sana'a)

+967 146 9771 / [email protected]

Caribbean (GMT - 5)

Brian Hansford, North America Spokesperson (Washington DC)

+1 202 999 8253 / [email protected]

Southeast Asia/Bay of Bengal (GMT + 7)

Vivian Tan, Asia-Pacific Spokesperson (Bangkok)

+66 81 827 0280 / [email protected]

Contact details for all UNHCR spokespersons are available online at: