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Remarks to the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, "Global awareness of the tragedies of irregular migrants in the Mediterranean basin, with specific emphasis on Syrian asylum seekers"

Speeches and statements

Remarks to the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, "Global awareness of the tragedies of irregular migrants in the Mediterranean basin, with specific emphasis on Syrian asylum seekers"

7 April 2017

Mr. President,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving UNHCR the opportunity to address the General Assembly today on an issue that is close to our heart.  We are also grateful to the Government of Turkey for proposing this theme in 2015.  Turkey has generously hosted refugees for decades, most recently giving refuge to over 2.9 million Syrians. 

The Mediterranean Sea is symbolic on many fronts.  It joins three continents and since antiquity has given birth to civilisations and world religions.  Migrations across its waters facilitated intercultural, social, and economic exchanges which allowed such civilizations to flourish.  In this sense, the Mediterranean Sea might be seen as one of the symbols of the common heritage of humanity. 

At the same time, of late, the Mediterranean has also become a symbol of another kind of human movement – that of forced displacement.  It epitomizes both the hopes and losses that come with flight from one’s community and the search for safety across borders and even seas.

More than one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 alone, hoping to find a solution to their plight, but many lives were lost along the way.  The majority originated from the Syrian Arab Republic where nearly one-half of the population is now displaced. Although the number of arrivals in Europe did decrease in the past year by nearly two-thirds overall, people - both migrants and refugees - continue to cross the Mediterranean and, tragically, continue to die in the process.  Last year, more individuals died in the crossing than in 2015 at the height of the movements.  This year, we have already seen some 905 deaths at sea, more than 92 per cent of which occurred along the Central Mediterranean route.[1]

It is essential that we counter the narrative of unmanageable crises and the rhetoric of isolationism and reframe our understanding of the situation in the Mediterranean.  We can demonstrate that it is possible to address such movements of people with the right systems in place and a willingness to cooperate.  In this respect, the Mediterranean Sea is also a symbol of the potential for collective action and responsibility-sharing in the face of the challenges wrought by forced displacement and irregular flows of migrants. 

Most recently, last December, UNHCR presented proposals entitled Better protecting refugees in the EU and globally,[2] which are aimed at contributing to better management, partnership, and solidarity.  They focus on external engagement to resolve conflicts, address the drivers of displacement, and stabilize refugee situations in host countries.  They also suggest internal approaches to contingency planning, common registration, efficient asylum processing, and developing safe pathways for admission. 

Such cooperation is necessary not only in Europe, but also around the Mediterranean and globally.  Recognizing this, all 193 leaders of UN Member States solemnly adopted the New York Declaration last September, committing to share the responsibility for refugees more equitably from the outset of a displacement situation, and to find a common approach to ensuring safe, orderly, and regular migration.[3]  This marked an important turn in our collective thinking, in our move from seeing large-scale movements as a crisis to recognizing that they are a reality of today’s world and a phenomenon that we can and must address with thoughtfulness and equanimity. 

Against this background and building on the New York Declaration, it may be timely to explore the prospects for developing a comprehensive regional approach for the situation of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean.  This is particularly needed for the Central Mediterranean where the number of arrivals this year is higher than they were at this time last year, and the movements are clearly of a mixed nature.  Seventy-three per cent of new arrivals to Europe in 2017 have gone through the Central Mediterranean route.  Already, over 31,000 migrants and refugees have arrived by sea in Europe in the first quarter of this year.  Compared to this time last year, although the numbers are significantly lower in Greece, they are higher in Italy and Spain.[4] 

The situation in the Central Mediterranean speaks to the importance of ensuring that refugees are able to get on with their lives wherever they are, or find alternative safe pathways, so that they do not have to risk their lives in trying to do so elsewhere. 

It also shows why safe and regular pathways for refugees, such as resettlement, humanitarian admission and family reunification, as well as building dignified lives for themselves in countries beyond the immediate region are essential.  To be fully effective, a regional approach would need to address these goals.  It would require the participation of host countries, countries of transit, and countries of destination on all sides of the sea.  It would bring to bear a number of key elements that are embodied in the New York Declaration.

There is a need to stabilize the situations in countries where refugees first seek protection or through which they are currently trying to transit. The stability and security situation in Libya, for example, needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.  Refugees and migrants have reported being kidnapped, detained, exploited, or even sold to criminal networks before being smuggled across the Central Mediterranean.  Reception capacity also needs to be bolstered and alternatives to detention identified. 

Refugees also need to be able to access functioning asylum systems everywhere.  Without safety, access to basic rights, and regularization of their status, they will be compelled to move onward to other countries.  Refugees further need to be able to send their children to school.  And critically, refugees need to be able to support themselves and their families through work and livelihood opportunities.

Many host countries in the neighbourhood of the Mediterranean – particularly in the Middle East where most refugees are located – require continued support.

Through timelier financial support and strengthened cooperation between humanitarian and development actors, as just demonstrated this week at the Brussels Conference on Syria, the international community can play a key role in making sure that the critical needs of refugees and the communities that host them can be met. 

Finally, all States on both sides of the Mediterranean can play a part in effecting a regional mechanism for search and rescue, which would include sharing responsibility for deployment of ships, as well as committing to receive individuals who have been rescued. There are opportunities to forge arrangements that would more equitably distribute this shared international responsibility.  For example, where countries of disembarkation have more limited reception capacities, we could conceive of creative arrangements for the temporary stay and possible resettlement of the refugees disembarked who are most at risk, as well as for the assisted voluntary return of migrants.

It is indeed critical that we give serious consideration to a more comprehensive and joined up regional approach to the situation in the Mediterranean, building on the various initiatives that have been under way.

In conclusion, the Mediterranean need not be only a symbol of the complex world of conflict, violence, and displacement in which we are living, but also a harbinger of hope for a different kind of engagement – one that is rooted in a deep sense of responsibility to one another and founded in a spirit of compassion and fundamental humanitarian values.


[1] Recorded deaths at sea in the Mediterranean include: 3,538 (2014), 3,771 (2015), 5,096 (2016), and 905 (first quarter of 2017).

[2] Available at:

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

[4] In the first quarter of 2017, 3,629 individuals arrived by sea in Greece, compared with 151,452 during the same period in 2016, and 23,112 arrived in Italy, compared with 18,777 in the same period in 2016.  In Spain, 1,584 arrived by sea in January and February 2017, compared with 627 in the same period in 2016.