Mediterranean Migrant and Refugee Crisis Demonstrates Need for U.S. Leadership to Better Protect Refugees

New York City – Following today’s meeting of European Union Leaders in Brussels to discuss a coordinated response to the migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, Human Rights First urged the United States to demonstrate global leadership on refugee protection by leading a comprehensive plan to resettle Syrian refugees and an international initiative to better protect the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.

“As the horrific drowning of more than 800 migrants and refugees off the coast of Libya this week has demonstrated, the world is facing a global humanitarian crisis,” stated Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “Simply blocking refugees and migrants from crossing borders by land or sea is not the answer. It is also counterproductive and ineffective. The United States and the European Union should address these challenges through a comprehensive approach that adheres to human rights law and does not replicate the mistakes made by states in their border control responses to large numbers of fleeing refugees in the last century. The United States has an opportunity to exercise true leadership by championing protection of the persecuted and vulnerable, reforming its own interception and detention policies, and launching a major resettlement initiative for Syrian refugees in partnership with European states. How the European Union – and the United States – respond to this crisis will be a true test of global leadership in this century.”

As violence, human rights abuses, war, and terror plague an increasing number of countries, the number of refugees and displaced people worldwide has reached the highest levels since World War II. So far this year, more than 1750 asylum seekers and migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe – 30 times higher than last year – half of whom are reportedly Syrians. About 4 million refugees have fled the violence, persecution, and terror in that country, with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey hosting the overwhelming majority of them. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has asked states to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees, but state commitments have fallen far short of that modest goal. The United Kingdom has reportedly agreed to resettle only 143 Syrian refugees and the United States has resettled only about 800 since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

Noting that the European Union’s response plan focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on European shores, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for International Migration, and the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration have called on the European Union to take collective action to launch a search and rescue mission to save lives, create channels for regular migration, significantly increase refugee resettlement, and combat xenophobic and racist rhetoric vilifying migrants and refugees.

“The EU’s failure to find an adequate collective response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean has emboldened xenophobic, racist extremists in Europe,” noted Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “The U.S. government should support initiatives to protect refugees and immigrants from xenophobic and racist violence in Europe and elsewhere.”

In response to the global refugee crisis, Human Rights First calls on the United States government to:

  • Lead a global initiative – in partnership with European and other states – to improve, rather than diminish, access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers and to ensure that all efforts to address migration and smuggling include effective avenues for securing protection. A key component of this initiative should include increased refugee resettlement and steps to better protect the human rights of migrants and refugees. This initiative should also examine the ways in which state policies and practices that simply block migration and prevent refugees from accessing asylum can be counterproductive, and create demand for smugglers.
  • Lead a comprehensive global plan to protect and resettle Syrian refugees, working in partnership with European and other states. This plan should assure that Syrian refugees are not blocked from crossing borders or fleeing their country to seek protection, and should aim to resettle at least 1 million Syrian refugees over 5 years. Such a plan would also help safeguard the stability of key states bordering Syria, and serve U.S. strategic interests. The United States should commit to resettle at least 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016, and significantly more over the following years, as long as the need remains.
  • Examine and reform the U.S. border policies that are inconsistent with refugee protection and human rights norms including to: end U.S. maritime interdiction policies that lack effective mechanisms to protect refugees from return to persecution; press for effective refugee protection safeguards in all discussions relating to Central American and Mexican border and migration enforcement practices; end the detention of children and families and the use of detention against individuals who qualify for release but for the U.S. desire to “deter” migration.
  • Press the European Union to commit to a well-resourced and robust search and rescue operation aimed at saving lives and to create credible alternatives to sea voyages such as regular migration and family unification visas, and much more significant levels of refugee resettlement. A draft agreement for the Brussels meeting reportedly proposes only about 5000 resettlement spots.
  • Champion protection in the face of proposals that would leave migrants and asylum seekers to drown at sea, detained or stranded in countries where their lives and basic rights are at risk, or blocked from escaping persecution, violence and human rights abuses.
  • Redouble efforts to find effective multilateral solutions to the political crisis in Syria and to address the human rights abuses that are causing so many people to flee their homes and their countries in search of protection.

“The United States is in a poor position to encourage its European allies to respond effectively to this crisis when it has fallen short both in resettling Syrian refugees and in its harsh detention, deterrence, and interception policies directed at Central America refugees,” added Acer.

For more information or to speak with Acer or Stahnke, contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at [email protected] or 212-845-5269.


Published on April 23, 2015


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