UN urges Europe to put asylum at center of Mediterranean debate

GENEVA – The UN refugee agency on Tuesday urged European leaders to do more to help Greece and Italy cope with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and to put protection of people at the center of debate.

After up to 900 died in the worst known shipwreck yet, European Union ministers on Monday set out a 10-point action plan and called an extraordinary summit of EU leaders for Thursday.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the plan as a good beginning while noting its emphasis on law enforcement.

“Obviously the devil is in the detail. We need to make sure that the asylum component and the protection of people component is one that is prioritized within these measures,” Volker Turk, assistant UN High Commissioner for protection, told a Geneva news briefing.

“The European political leadership will need to provide the appropriate response which is built on the fundamental European values, and human rights and human dignity, responsibility, solidarity among themselves and with the world,” he said.

Tens of thousands of migrants have been carried in dangerously overcrowded boats from north Africa, especially Libya, to southern Europe in recent months.

Monday’s EU action plan sets out a mix of measures including reinforcing naval patrols in the Mediterranean, capturing and destroying vessels used by people smugglers, and new steps to deal with refugees and migrants arriving in the European Union.

The UNHCR has proposed enhancing resettlement of refugees, admission on humanitarian grounds, and alternative legal channels to enter Europe, Volk said.

“We have made proposals about increased search and rescue operations, proposals about making sure we identify and screen people who are in need of international protection and ensure that they are properly distributed within the European Union.”

EU talks should consider a “distribution key” that ensures Greece and Italy are able to “call on the solidarity measures from the rest of the European Union” to help process asylum applications and redistribute people found in need, he said.

“In 2014, the Mediterranean emerged as the deadliest waters in the world for refugees and migrants to be crossing, on average one in 50 people who attempted the crossing perished in the attempt,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

“So far this year it’s one in 18, so the numbers are really going in the wrong direction,” he said, noting that 1,776 people have been reported killed trying to make the crossing this year.


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