EU must 'take urgent action' to ensure safety of refugees

Written by Vincent Cochetel on 31 July 2014 in News
News

Europe must work together to find 'long term burden sharing' solution in rescue operations and access to asylum procedures, writes Vincent Cochetel.

The rising death toll at EU’s sea borders can no longer be ignored. More than 800 refugees and migrants have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, including recently a pregnant woman and a newborn baby. Survivors of recent tragedies report disturbing incidents of mass drownings, suffocations and a suspected multiple stabbing.

More than 96,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea so far this year, compared to 60,000 that made the same journey in the whole of 2013. Many of those risking their lives in the hands of smugglers to seek safety in Europe are fleeing Eritrea, Syria and other countries torn apart by violence and war.

Many children, often on their own, are making these perilous sea journeys. The stories they tell us of their experiences are truly harrowing. They are particularly at risk of perishing at sea if their boat capsizes as they may not know how to swim and may not have someone looking out for them. Some of these children have not only suffered trauma as a consequence of fleeing conflict and violence back home, some have also suffered the loss of loved ones on the journey.

"It is essential to ensure that the long-established tradition of rescue at sea is upheld and we welcome efforts by European authorities on this regard, particularly in Italy through Mare Nostrum"

We are witnessing an intensifying crisis on Europe's shores, and now is the time for the EU institutions and member states to take urgent action. It is essential to ensure that the long-established tradition of rescue at sea is upheld and we welcome efforts by European authorities on this regard, particularly in Italy through Mare Nostrum.

There is not a magic solution, these are complex and difficult issues, but the EU now needs to come together and plan for the long term as these are issues that are not going away. This is the time to implement innovative proposals including many of those included in the EU task force on the Mediterranean.

UNHCR’s central Mediterranean Sea initiative provides several concrete steps, within the EU and beyond, aimed at preventing the loss of lives at sea. Among the most urgent proposals are: strengthening rescue operations, providing swift access to asylum procedures to those in need of international protection, and increasing legal alternatives to prevent people making such dangerous crossings in the first place.

To be able to make any real headway on the issue of sea crossings, credible alternatives must be offered. We urge countries to look at all options, including resettlement, admission based on humanitarian needs, admission schemes based on private sponsorship, facilitated access to family reunification and the use of programmes such as student or employment visas.

"We urge countries to look at all options, including resettlement, admission based on humanitarian needs, admission schemes based on private sponsorship, facilitated access to family reunification and the use of programmes such as student or employment visas"

The response must also include sufficient capacity and adequate reception conditions to receive and document rescued refugees and migrants. Additional reception facilities and assistance in processing arrivals, as well as identifying solutions for them, could be established with support from all EU states based on solidarity and burden sharing. It is important that in their response states use detention only as a last resort and not as a first solution. For many refugees who had suffered trauma and persecution, detention in the hands of those from whom they are seeking protection is a very traumatising experience. We will continue to work with governments and other partners to identify longer-term solutions.

This is not the time to batten down the hatches. The EU must agree on a way forward before more lives are lost.

About the author

Vincent Cochetel is Director of Bureau for Europe at UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

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