Top UN refugee official calls for meeting on Mediterranean irregular migration

A boat carrying asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: UNHCR/L.Boldrini

20 May 2009 – The top United Nations refugee official, António Guterres, has urged the European Commission (EC) to convene a gathering bringing together Italy, Malta, Libya, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others to create a joint response to irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea.

The moves comes on the heels of Italy’s recent ‘push-backs’ to Libya. Earlier this month, UNHCR expressed its concern after Italy sent over 200 people it rescued off Maltese waters back to Libya before properly assessing their possible protection needs.

In late March, hundreds of people who were seeking new lives in Europe died off the Libyan coast, and UNHCR is increasing its presence in Libya to help those seeking international protection.

In a letter to EC Vice President Jacques Barrot, Mr. Guterres said his agency recognizes the strain that irregular migration places on Italy and other European Union (EU) Member States.

“At the same time, UNHCR believes fundamental principles are at stake and that these principles ought to guide the response to such movements,” agency spokesperson Ron Redmond said today.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantees the right to seek asylum from persecution, while the customary international law principle of non-refoulement precludes sending people back to situations where their lives or freedom would be jeopardized, he added.

The provision of asylum remains a responsibility of States, Mr. Redmond said, emphasizing that UNHCR’s activities cannot be a substitute for that duty.

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