UN refugee agency official urges EU to prioritize ‘safety’ in Mediterranean amid recent deaths off Greek coast
A UN refugee agency official called on the EU to firmly place safety and solidarity at the forefront of their actions in the wake of the June 14 shipwreck off the coast of Greece which caused the deaths of at least 82 migrants as hundreds more are feared to have drowned.
“The EU, its Member States, and all countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea must prioritize safety and solidarity as the driving forces behind their actions in the region,” Philippe Leclerc, the Turkiye representative of the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), told Anadolu.
“In view of the increased movements of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, collective efforts, including greater coordination between all Mediterranean States, solidarity, and responsibility-sharing, as to be reflected in the EU’s Pact on Migration and Asylum are essential to save lives,” Leclerc added.
“This includes the establishment of an agreed regional disembarkation and redistribution mechanism for people who arrive by sea, which we continue to advocate for,” he said.
Noting that by the end of 2022, the number of people displaced by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses stood at a record 108.4 million, up 19.1 million from a year earlier, Leclerc said that this “was the largest ever increase.”
“It includes 35.3 million refugees, 62.5 million internally displaced people, 5.4 million asylum seekers and 5.2 million other people in need of international protection,” he added.
Estimated 110M displaced by May 2023
Noting that the upward trajectory in global forced displacement showed no sign of slowing in 2023 due to the eruption of conflict in Sudan, the UNHCR official said that this “triggered new outflows, both internally displaced and refugees, pushing the global total to an estimated 110 million by May 2023.”
“These figures show us that some leaders are far too quick to rush to conflict and way too slow to find solutions,” Leclerc said.
“The consequence is devastation, displacement, and anguish for each of the millions of people forcibly uprooted from their homes,” he added.
He called for supporting refugees in restarting their lives and enabling them to contribute to the countries hosting them.
“It’s also the best way to prepare them to return home and rebuild their countries when conditions allow them to do so safely and voluntarily or to thrive if they are resettled to another country,” the UNHCR official added.
Supporting Türkiye ‘more critical than ever'
Noting that since 2014, Türkiye has been hosting the world’s largest refugee population, with “some 4 million refugees and asylum seekers benefiting from a sound legislative framework,” he said: “Continuing to support Türkiye is more critical than ever.”
“We need to continue supporting the immediate and continued humanitarian needs of people affected by the earthquake while engaging in early recovery, reconstruction and development activities for people to rebuild their lives,” he added.
Leclerc also called on the international community “to show the people of Türkiye the same kind of support and generosity with which they received, protected and assisted millions of refugees in an enormous show of solidarity in line with the Global Compact on Refugees” in the face of the Feb. 6 major earthquakes which killed more than 50,000 people.
Leclerc said that while low- and middle-income countries hosted 76% of the world’s refugees and others in need of international protection, the Least Developed Countries provided asylum to 20% of the total.
“High-income countries, which account for most of the global wealth, hosted 24% of refugees at end-2022," he said. "This is a much greater proportion than in recent years due primarily to the number of Ukrainian refugees hosted in high-income, mainly European countries.”
The UNHCR official said that the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2018, presents a blueprint for the global solidarity and responsibility sharing needed by the international community.
“This means doing more to ease the pressure on the host countries, enhance refugee self-reliance, expand access to third-country solutions, and support conditions in countries of origin for voluntary return in safety and dignity," he said.
"The forthcoming Global Refugee Forum 2023 will be an opportunity to demonstrate that this solidarity remains solid, as States and other stakeholders showcase good practices and make new commitments in support of refugees and their host communities,” he added.
Call for access to asylum for all refugees
Asked about the EU countries’ different responses to Syrian and Ukrainian refugees, Leclerc said: “We have always advocated for access to asylum for all refugees – and have made our positions clear, publicly and with governments.”
“Respecting human rights is not a choice – it is a legal and moral obligation,” he said.
“Regional and neighboring countries of those affected by conflict welcome the largest numbers of refugees. That's normal,” he added.
“Countries neighboring Sudan have received those fleeing the crisis there this year. Countries next to Syria including Türkiye, have hosted Syrian refugees for over a decade; Kenya and other countries across the African continent continue to provide protection to Somalis; Bangladesh hosts hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. And so on,” Leclerc said.
“Similarly, to Turkiye for Syrians, the EU has resorted to a temporary protection scheme when confronted with the massive influx of Ukrainians fleeing war,” he said.
Highlighting the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, Leclerc said: “Nearly 1.7 million people have been uprooted within Sudan, while about half a million refugees, asylum-seekers and refugee returnees have sought safety in neighboring countries amid the violence.”
On April 15, fighting erupted between the Sudanese army and the RSF in the capital Khartoum and its surroundings. More than 600 people have been killed and thousands injured.
“UNHCR teams continue to observe rising numbers fleeing Sudan, most of them arriving in Chad, South Sudan and Egypt,” he said. “UNHCR echoes calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities, restore calm and to begin a dialogue to resolve the crisis.”
“This is urgently needed also to prevent another major displacement crisis that could further destabilize a fragile region,” Leclerc said.