U.N. urges states to save boat people as record numbers take to seas

Wed Dec 10, 2014 8:20am EST
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By Katie Nguyen

GENEVA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments must focus on saving lives rather than keeping foreigners out at a time when more people than ever are embarking on risky sea crossings in search of asylum or a better life, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said at least 384,000 people, including a growing number of asylum seekers, had taken to the seas since the beginning of the year with reports of 4,272 people dying in their attempt to reach safe shores.

The bulk of the arrivals has been in Europe where more than 207,000 people have landed after crossing the Mediterranean since January 1 - about three times the previous high of about 70,000 in 2011 during the Libyan civil war.

The surge in numbers coincides with growing anti-immigration sentiment in many countries where populist leaders have preyed on fears of jobs and welfare benefits being lost to migrants.

"Focusing on border control and deterrence will not solve the problem," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a meeting in Geneva.

"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," he said.

Guterres' comments at the start of a two-day debate with government officials, aid workers, coastguards and other experts were echoed by the U.N. human rights chief, who criticized the "mean-spiritedness" of states unmoved by the plight of the world's boat people.

"When migrants are left to drift for weeks without access to food and water, when ships deliberately refuse to rescue migrants in distress, when children in search of family reunification are detained indefinitely, denied education and care or returned to perilous situations, these are grave human rights violations," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.   Continued...