UN welcomes European Union proposals for ‘visionary’ migration reforms

A UNHCR staff member watches as people rescued from the Mediterranean disembark from an Italian Coastguard vessel at Palermo, Sicily, on Tuesday 14 April 2015. Photo: UNHCR/F. Malavolta

New York, 13 May 2015 – The United Nations refugee agency and the world body’s top envoy on international migration have applauded European Union (EU) authorities’ proposals for dealing with refugees and migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean, calling for swift implementation of the reforms “for the urgent purpose of saving lives.”

In a statement issued in New York, Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration and Development welcomed the “visionary reforms” to the region’s asylum system put forward today in the European Commission’s ‘European Agenda on Migration.’

In particular, the proposed relocation and resettlement programs, based on a distribution key, promise to offer safer legal avenues to asylum seekers and to distribute responsibility for providing international protection more equitably across the EU.

“I expect that the resettlement target of 20,000 will increase over time and that the EU will continue to expand safe avenues by providing more humanitarian, labour, and family reunification visas to asylum seekers and migrants,” said Mr. Southerland in the statement.

He went on to comment the EU’s commitment to triple the resources for Operations ‘Triton’ and ‘Poseidon’ in the Mediterranean Sea so that they are at least equal in effect to ‘Mare Nostrum’. However, he said the EU needs to make search-and-rescue the top priority for this effort.

“As the EU pursues its anti-smuggling initiatives, meanwhile, I urge member States not to put any refugees or migrants in the line of fire, and to design any operation in complete conformity with international law,” said the statement.

Mr. Southerland notes that the proposals also begin to give prominence to critical issues related to migration and development, especially the vital need for migrants, refugees, and migration to be included in the post-2015 UN development agenda.

“Only by forging a sustainable, long-term strategy on migration and asylum can the European Union meet its humanitarian, economic, and external relations needs,” it said.

For his part, Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the EU proposals represent a “great breakthrough” in terms of managing refugee flows and migration.

“It is now enormously important, and vital for the urgent purpose of saving lives, that these proposals be embraced quickly and fully implemented,” he declared, adding that UNHCR stands ready to provide all further help it can to member States in making those objectives a reality.

A record 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 in smugglers’ boats and 3,500 died. Around half of these people were refugees fleeing war and persecution. So far in 2015, some 62,500 people have made the crossing, and at least 1,800 have died, according to UNHCR.

The European Commission’s proposals announced today “include strengthened measures to save lives at sea, and improved mechanisms for allowing legal entry into the EU for people fleeing war, and providing for a fair redistribution of refugees,” said Mr. Volker.

“They also contain measures to address some of the factors that are driving people into the hands of smugglers, including the desperate conditions many refugees face in countries of first-asylum and transit.”

Record levels of global displacement from wars and conflict in Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and other regions of sub-Saharan Africa, coupled with insecurity in Libya and blocked land routes for mixed migration flows in other regions, have in recent years combined to fuel a sharp increase in refugees seeking to enter Europe by one of the few remaining means possible – travel by sea.

Mr. Turk said that “solidarity among EU member States in the approach is the only way that a problem of this nature can be tackled.”

In its press release, the refugee agency spelled out its position on the European Commission’s Migration Agenda on issues ranging from saving lives at sea to responding to high-volumes of arrivals, helping frontline EU Member States, addressing root causes in third countries and border management and a new legal migration policy.