UN High Commissioner for Refugees Holds Dialogue on “Protection at Sea”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Holds Dialogue on “Protection at Sea”

Dialogue highlights need for global cooperation on rescue and protection of migrants and refugees fleeing by boat


On December 10-11, 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) held a dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland with several countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss the roles and responsibilities of governments to protect migrants and refugees fleeing their countries on the high seas. The dialogue came at a pivotal time, as a record 350,000 migrants had attempted to reach other countries by the end of 2014 and 5,000 perished at sea.

UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres told the over 100 nations and organizations assembled for the dialogue that they held a responsibility to work together to engage in rescue operations and provide safe havens to refugees fleeing persecution and poverty in their homelands. The dialogue concentrated on four areas of concern: 1) the Mediterranean Sea, where Africans fleeing poverty and unrest and Syrians fleeing conflict attempt to reach Europe; 2) the Gulf of Aden, where Africans attempt to reach the Gulf States; 3) the Caribbean Sea, where Haitians, Cubans and other populations attempt to reach the United States and 4) Southeast Asia, where Burmese, Sri Lankans, and Indonesians attempt to reach Australia and India.

In closing remarks, High Commissioner Guterres emphasized that nations have a responsibility to: 1) save lives; 2) respect human rights and the rule of law; 3) promote tolerance and 4) value diversity. He cited the need to address the root causes of flight and to fill protection “gaps” for those on the high seas, such as appropriate screening and asylum procedures and legal avenues for laborers to migrate. He also decried the use of detention as a deterrent to illegal sea crossings.

The delegates to the dialogue participated in three breakout sessions: 1) saving lives: search, rescue and disembarkation; 2) comprehensive approaches to addressing the drivers of dangerous sea journeys and 3) international cooperation to share burdens and responsibilities. The results and recommendations from those sessions can be found at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home/opendocPDFViewer.html?docid=549990819&query=protectionatsea.

Of interest to advocates in the United States was the dialogue between US NGOs and Assistant Secretary Ann Richard of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM) about the screening and protection of Haitians interdicted by the US Coast Guard in the Caribbean. US NGO representatives expressed concerned with the longstanding “shout” test policy, whereby only Haitians who show some distress at being returned to Haiti are granted asylum screenings. Such distress is usually detected by unsolicited oral communication or bodily signs demonstrating fear of return. Advocates pointed out that 55 percent of Haitians who reach US soil obtain asylum protection while zero percent interdicted on the high sea receive any protection, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the “shout” test. Advocates also expressed concern about how the Bahamian government handles Haitian asylum-seekers attempting to reach the United States, as a high number are returned to Haiti. Secretary Richard agreed to meet with advocates in Washington, DC, to address these issues and look at alternatives to the current “shout” test policy.

An overriding theme of the dialogue was the policy of the European Union (EU) to the boat crossings of migrants and refugees from Africa. In 2013, the Italian rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was launched in response to the hundreds of migrants who died in shipwrecks near the island of Lampedusa in October 2013. Implementation of the operation was also due, in part, to the visit of Pope Francis to Lampedusa to pray for migrants who have died in the Mediterranean. In his homily at Lampedusa in July 2013, Pope Francis spoke of the “globalization of indifference” to migrants who search for safety. Mare Nostrum has saved the lives of as many as 160,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea over the past year, but was ended on November 1, 2014 because of high costs to the Italian government and lack of financial and material commitment from other EU governments for the effort.

With the end of Mare Nostrum, and the advent of a new policy entitled Triton, a more limited rescue operation confined to 30 miles from Italian soil, it is unclear whether Europe, and specifically Italy, is stepping back from its rescue and protection responsibilities. While the European country delegates expressed support for the protection of refugees at sea, there were no specific commitments by the nations present to step up their material or financial commitments to rescue operations in the Mediterranean. NGO representatives expressed concern that, as a result, more lives could be lost at sea during the upcoming spring and summer months.

Noted in the discussion was the increase in Syrian refugees arriving in Italy by boat, some from as far away as Egypt. In the past, African migrants represented the majority of those arriving by boat in Europe.

In summary, the UNHCR dialogue on protection at sea surfaced many protection gaps and potential solutions for migrants and refugees who flee their homelands by boat. However, these solutions will not come to fruition without the commitment of governments from all parts of the globe, especially destination countries. Root causes must continue to be addressed, but immediate rescue at sea and asylum protection must increase. The “globalization of indifference,” as Pope Francis puts it, must end.

Kevin Appleby
Director, Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs
Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops