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.
"Rich countries must not become gated communities, their people averting their eyes from the bloodstains on the driveway," he added, speaking on the annual Human Rights Day.
For the first time in decades, most boat people are not economic migrants but men, women and children fleeing conflict and persecution, according to Guterres.
Many are from Syria, where fighting has raged for nearly four years, and Eritrea, where human rights experts say national service, an indefinite conscription, amounts to forced labor.
The UNHCR said that in the Horn of Africa, more than 80,000 people, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia, crossed the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea between Jan. 1 and end-November en route to Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
In Southeast Asia, an estimated 54,000 people have taken to the sea so far this year, most of them leaving Bangladesh or Myanmar and heading to Thailand or Malaysia. In the Caribbean, nearly 5,000 people took to boats between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, hoping to flee poverty or in search of asylum, the UNHCR said.
Many travel in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats after making large payments to unscrupulous middlemen. Many drown or fall victim to human traffickers.
William Swing, director general for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said search and rescue missions were key to tackling the problem.
He also called for a crackdown on traffickers and for more centers to be opened in North Africa to receive migrants and process asylum claims.
Less than two months ago Italy announced it would halt a sea rescue mission - Mare Nostrum - that had saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East since it began over a year ago.
Italy said the mission would end to make way for a smaller European Union scheme.
The U.N. special rapporteur on migrants' human rights urged Malta on Wednesday to step up its preparations to deal with an expected increase in boat people arriving on the island next year as a result of the phasing out of Mare Nostrum.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA; Editing by Tim Pearce