348 000 migrants by sea – UNHCR

Geneva – A global total of 348 000 migrants have embarked upon dangerous sea journeys to escape conflicts or economic hardship so far this year, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Wednesday.

Nearly 4 300 of them have died during those journeys, the Geneva-based body said, meaning that boat migrants face a more-than-1-per-cent chance of losing their lives during sea crossing.

In the Mediterranean – which, in the wake of conflicts in Syria, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Libya, has become the most popular sea route for asylum seekers and other migrants – there were 207 000 crossings.

The figure is three times as high as the previous known record of 70 000 recorded in 2011 at the height of the Libyan crisis. There was also a record number of reported deaths that year – 3 400.

Other major routes with significant death tolls include the Bay of Bengal with 540 victims, as well as the Horn of Africa, where at least 242 perished in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres urged countries not to simply close their borders, nor to implement other policies designed to deter migrants.

“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.

Separately, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, warned rich countries not to seal themselves off from economic migrants.

“Rich countries must not become gated communities,” Zeid said. “Unilateral attempts to close borders are almost certainly futile, and the response cannot just lie in aggressive, and often counter-productive, anti-smuggling plans,” he added

Less risky

Guterres urged governments to look at the reasons why people choose dangerous sea routes rather than seeking asylum protection in a less risky way, and to set up proper systems for identifying real refugees from other migrants.

He did not point to any specific national policies, but in the past Guterres has urged European countries to offer asylum seekers safe and legal alternatives to sea routes.

Last month, Italy started phasing out its Mare Nostrum maritime search-and-rescue operation, passing over the baton to a narrower EU sea border patrol mission called Triton. The handover was sharply criticized by non-governmental groups.

“The reminder that thousands of people are dying on Europe’s doorstep must spur EU institutions and member states to maintain adequate search and rescue capacity to stem the shocking tide of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean,” Amnesty International said in reaction to the UNHCR data.

Last week, the UN rights office said it was deeply concerned about Australian authorities returning migrants at sea, apparently without properly considering their possible asylum needs.

Seriously abused

Besides the Mediterranean, there were three other main sea routes for migrants and asylum seekers this year.

At the Horn of Africa, nearly 82 700 crossed the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea between January and November, mainly to get from Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen and to Gulf countries.

In South-East Asia, some 54 000 crossed the seas to get to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most of those boat people started from Bangladesh and Myanmar and travelled across the Bay of Bengal.

UNHCR has said that people smugglers in the region often hold migrants against their will in camps and seriously abuse them.

“Since last year, hundreds of people are alleged to have died in the camps from illness, starvation, dehydration and killings by smugglers when they tried to escape or could not pay,” the UN agency said last week about Thai camps.

In addition, UNHCR said Wednesday that 4 800 people in the Caribbean used boats to escape poverty or to seek asylum.



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