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Note: A complete summary of today’s General Assembly meeting will be available after its conclusion.
ELLISTON RAHMING (Bahamas), Vice-President of the General Assembly, speaking on behalf of the President of the Assembly, said there had been a continuous flow of irregular migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea since the last time the Assembly met to discuss the situation. Thousands had made the journey and hundreds had lost their lives, he said, adding that the drivers of such migration had continued unabated. “Indeed, indiscriminate attacks against civilians, such as the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria earlier this week — remind us all of the climate of fear that people seek to escape,” he said. In such a context, discussions such as the one today were essential, he added.
He acknowledged Turkey’s leadership in bringing to the Assembly the agenda item on irregular migrants in the Mediterranean basis with specific emphasis on Syrian asylum seekers. That agenda item served to launch the United Nations intergovernmental process that led to the adoption in September 2016 of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, through which Member States agreed to develop global compacts for refugees and for safe, orderly and regular migration. He encouraged delegations to remember why the Assembly was undertaking that process, to think of the people of Syria and beyond, to recall the tragic events that drove so many to flee, to understand the impact on neighbouring countries and to bring to the consultations a spirit of humanity, solidarity, and above all, respect for the human rights of all migrants.
MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI, Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General, said the Secretary-General — who spent a decade on the front lines of the global refugee crisis — met last week with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Iraq, where he called on the wider international community to increase humanitarian support and to provide more opportunities to refugees. Noting that refugees and migrants often moved along the same routes and faced the same risks and human rights violations, he said the suffering of the Syrian people — now in its seventh year — was especially appalling. “The misery is immense, but there are also signs of humanity and solidarity,” he said, noting that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hosted the largest number of refugees in the Middle East region. Openness in other parts of the world provided glimmers of hope in an environment of intensifying xenophobic rhetoric and restrictive policies.
Calling for all acts of violence and discrimination to be firmly condemned, she said migrants and refugees, while poor in material terms, had energy, intelligence, skills and culture. It was in everyone’s interest to show empathy and celebrate diversity. The United Nations “TOGETHER” campaign for respect, safety and dignity for all went to the heart of the Organization’s mission, with Governments being its real stakeholders. Investing in inclusivity and cohesion, prioritizing development, protecting human rights and enabling all people to realize their potential was a shared responsibility that required mediation and peace and security efforts together with investments in sustainable development and human rights. “When we protect human rights and defend human dignity, we will enable people to flourish where they are,” she said. “They can help build a future of peace and sustainable development.”
NAME TO COME of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said global population displacement was at a record high and the tragedy facing the Syrian people was horrific. Those situations required urgent attention and action. “The human cost is no longer bearable,” he said. The Mediterranean continued to be at the forefront of such movements, with more than 1 million people arriving in 2015 alone and more than 29,000 from January to March 2017. Irregular migration was one of the most invisible movements with women and children facing particular vulnerabilities, given the numbers of unaccompanied minors.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he said, recognized the contributions migrants made as agents of development. Safe and orderly migration was imperative, he said, noting that IOM stood ready to work with Governments to ensure that. The 2016 United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants was a critical juncture. Moving forward, stakeholders must work together to achieve progress. IOM was set to work with States to stamp out negative actions against refugees and migrants and to change the current toxic narrative on migration into something positive.
VOLKER TÜRK, Assistant High Commission for Protection, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the Mediterranean had become a symbol of forced displacement, epitomizing both the hopes and losses that came with flight from one’s community and search for safety across borders. More than 1 million refugees had crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 alone hoping to find a solution to their plight, the majority of whom had originated in Syria, where nearly one half of the population was now displaced.
While the number of arrivals in Europe had fallen by nearly two thirds in the last year, he said both migrants and refugees continued to cross the Mediterranean. Last year, more people had died in the crossing than in 2015 at the height of the movements; UNHCR had already registered some 905 deaths in 2017. “It is essential that we counter the narrative of unmanageable crises and the rhetoric of isolationism and reframe our understanding of the situation in the Mediterranean,” he said.
It was possible to address the situation with the right systems and a willingness to cooperate, he said. UNHCR had made proposals to better protect refugees in the European Union and globally, by focusing on external engagement to resolve conflicts, addressing the drivers of displacement, and stabilizing refugee situations in host countries. UNHCR also had suggested internal approaches to contingency planning, common registration and asylum processing.
Such cooperation was needed, he said, and building on the New York Declaration, it might be timely to explore prospects for developing a comprehensive regional approach to the situation of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, particularly needed for the Central Mediterranean, where the number of arrivals this year was higher than at this time in 2016. Seventy‑three per cent of new arrivals to Europe in 2016 had passed through that route; more than 31,000 migrants and had arrived in Europe by sea during the first quarter this year.
He said the situation in the Central Mediterranean spoke to the reasons why resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification and building dignified lives in countries beyond the immediate region were essential. A regional approach would need to address those goals, as well as stabilize the situations in countries where refugees first sought protection or through which they were transiting. The security situation in Libya must be addressed, as refugees and migrants had reported being kidnapped or exploited before being smuggled across the Central Mediterranean.
Emphasizing that refugees must be able to access asylum systems everywhere, he said that “without safety, access to basic rights and regularization of their status, they will be compelled to move onward to other countries”. Refugee children must attend school and adults must be able to support their families through work opportunities. Many host countries required continued support.
Through timelier financial support, the international community could play a key role in ensuring that critical needs were met, he said. Moreover, States on both sides of the Mediterranean could formulate a regional mechanism for search and rescue, which would include sharing responsibility for ship deployment, and committing to receive people who had been rescued.
NAME TO COME, European Union, said the current crisis required a collective response. A new approach to address those challenges had been put in place, with a view to stemming irregular migration flows in full respect for human rights. Appreciating actions that had been taken by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to host refugees, he said the European Union had provided assistance to them. Discussions were ongoing to establish a humanitarian framework. With that in mind, the European Union had co-chaired a meeting with the United Nations and a number of countries to discuss what was required, recognizing that the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people had never been greater. Innovative approaches were essential. That conference had welcomed progress in, among other areas, job creation programmes in line with the host countries’ relevant situations.
But, the current challenge went beyond the Syrian crisis and the long-term root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement must be addressed, he said. Holistic and tailored approaches helped countries to do so. Putting forward concrete actions to save lives, stemming trafficking and building close relations with countries of origin were at the centre of the European Union’s efforts. Large movements of refugees and migrants posed a global challenge and an opportunity. Migration was both inevitable, and if managed in an orderly way, beneficial. Concerned about negative trends against refugees and migrants, the European Union had firmly committed to the Declaration. Those collective goals could only be achieved through effective multilateralism.
CIHAD ERGINAY (Turkey) outlined recent progress at the international level in focusing attention on the large movements of refugees and migrants, recalling in particular that the 2030 Agenda included a number of migration-related targets. Turkey had hosted the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, which had generated more than 3,000 commitments to action and launched more than a dozen new partnerships. “It is high time to put our commitments into action,” he stressed, noting that the upcoming consultations and negotiations on the two Global Compacts on migration and refugees would constitute historic milestones.
Describing several situations that were driving millions around the world to flee armed conflict, poverty, food and water insecurity, persecution, terrorism and natural disaster, he noted the conflict in Syria, in particular, which had now entered its seventh grim year. Hundreds of thousands had been killed, more than 6 million were displaced within Syria and some 5 million had sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Stressing that the regime’s relentless attacks against its own people continued, he strongly condemned the chemical weapons attack perpetrated by that regime on 4 April in Khan Shaykhun, which constituted a war crime, a crime against humanity and a violation of international law.
Urging the international community not to turn a blind eye to the plight of those seeking to escape such conflicts, he noted that Turkey currently hosted the largest number of refugees in the world — almost 3.2 million — and would continue to extend that helping hand. In that context, an agreement reached between his country and the European Union on 18 March would focus on preventing loss of lives in the Aegean Sea, breaking the migrant smuggling networks and replacing illegal migration with legal migration. Pledging to keep Turkey’s doors open to Syrians feeling their country, he went on to describe Turkey’s efforts to provide them with food and medical and educational services and to enable them to contribute legally to the economy.
“Migration is as old as humankind, it will neither vanish nor end,” he said, adding that it was therefore the world’s collective duty to find appropriate responses to its challenges. Both Global Compacts needed to be inclusive, transparent and comprehensive, taking into account the views of host countries. In that regard, he called for the global response to give priority to saving lives; ensure responsibility and burden sharing; eliminate “push” factors such as wars, conflicts, human right violations, economic deprivation and climate change; and promote more regular channels of migration. Refraining from poisonous rhetoric and approaches towards refugees and migrants was also critical, he said.