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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

10 December 2014

UNHCR Dialogue on Protection Challenges
Theme: Protection at sea

“Specific protection challenges affecting migrants at sea
and how the global community could better respond to their plight.”

10 December 2014

Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

Our topic raises vital human rights issues, and in fact challenges us to re-affirm the meaning of human rights.

They are clearly defined entitlements and freedoms that are the inalienable right of every person.

I'll say that again: every person. Yet many countries appear to view migrants – particularly those in an irregular administrative situation – as somehow undeserving of human rights.

Today it seems that only a tragedy involving hundreds of deaths calls for compassion. One or two bodies washing up on a rock: this barely makes the news. Migrants are depicted as invasive, by a belligerent vocabulary – people “flooding”, "swamping", "jumping the queue," "threatening our way of life".

These were avoidable deaths – not of "hordes,", but of ordinary people, who risked their lives often because they had no other realistic choice. The near-closure of legal migration channels and ever higher barriers to entry drove them to seek highly dangerous sea routes, which also made them more vulnerable to abuse along the way. They may have endured trafficking; ill-treatment and torture; detention; sexual violence; and slavery. Some counter-smuggling measures employed by States can themselves escalate the risks to migrants – including by driving them into contact with more organized and violent criminal gangs – and may have negative impact on their human rights.

Prior to departure, many had suffered deprivation and devastating conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. Some were elderly or ill; others were children, travelling with their parents or on their own.

The lack of concern that we see in many countries for the suffering and exploitation of such desperate people is deeply shocking. Indeed perhaps we can even say there is a mean-spiritedness that marks the general attitude in some countries.

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.

Rich countries must not become gated communities, their people averting their eyes from the bloodstains in the driveway.

What can we do?

States have a right to determine who enters their territory. But this is limited by the requirements of international law.
Thus people in distress at sea must be rescued and disembarked in conditions of safety and dignity. States must refrain from using harsh interception and deterrence measures to prevent people from reaching their territory.

On arrival, everyone has the right to individual determination of her or his situation, including asylum procedures. Specific attention must be paid to refugees, and to people who are at particular risk – such as children, pregnant women, victims of torture, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, people with disabilities, and older persons.

Regardless of status, no-one should be subjected to prolonged or arbitrary detention, discriminatory decision-making, unlawful profiling, or disproportionate interference with the right to privacy.

The absolute prohibition on refoulement must be upheld.

But is this enough? From the Mediterranean to the Pacific and Indian Oceans – as well as in the Middle East, the Americas and beyond – migrant crises cry out urgently for rational and coordinated action. Unilateral attempts to close borders are almost certainly futile, and the response cannot just lie in aggressive, and often counterproductive, anti-smuggling plans.

States need to set up structured regional response mechanisms that cover both push factors in countries of origin and pull factors in destination countries – such as the demographic and economic gaps that migrants clearly help to fill. Above all, far more emphasis needs to be given to protecting rights and saving lives. The siege mentality fanned by an increasing number of populist leaders is disgraceful and dishonest, and must end. When migrants are welcomed and fully integrated into society, they can be a tremendous asset.

Policies that seek to stamp out migration do not decrease the numbers of would-be migrants. Rather, they exacerbate the dangers they endure, create zones of lawlessness and impunity at borders, and corrode the values of freedom, equality and human dignity that States are bound to uphold.

Respect for human rights is vital to more rational, humane and effective border governance. My Office recently issued the OHCHR Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders. They detail how to integrate human rights in rescue and interception – including providing alternatives to detention at borders and to cooperation agreements that compromise human rights, and ways to ensure that the captains of commercial ships are not penalised for assisting people in distress.

They also outline how to assess and amend screening processes at borders, to dismantle discriminatory barriers, and to identify and protect migrants who may be at particular risk. My Office stands ready to assist States and other stakeholders to use these Principles and Guidelines.

Ultimately, unless they can access safe and regular migration channels, desperate people may continue to brave the perils of the sea in search of protection, opportunity and hope. In their place, we would probably do the same. And perhaps only this recognition of our common humanity can guide us to make the right choices in response.