UNHCR urges countries to come forward with ‘relevant information’ on people smugglers

UN Human Rights Chief says Mediterranean ‘mass murderers’ must be brought to justice

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Friday urged Egypt and other North African and European States with relevant information to make a concerted effort to bring to justice the people smugglers who allegedly deliberately sank a boat causing the deaths of between 300 and 500 refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean last week.

The UN Human Rights Chief was referring to the incident that happened some 300nm south east of Malta. Three survivors who were brought to Malta recounted the horrific experience they went through and how the ruthless smugglers pushed hundreds to death.

High Commissioner Zeid stressed that it was crucial to bring to an end the prevailing impunity surrounding such crimes and urged States to do more to address the root causes driving people to make such dangerous journeys.

“This is a truly horrendous incident,” Zeid said. “It is the duty of States to investigate such atrocious crimes, bring the perpetrators to justice, and even more importantly to do more to prevent them from happening in the first place. All the countries in the Mediterranean must make a concerted effort to clamp down on the smugglers who are exploiting one of the most vulnerable groups on the planet and endangering their lives, virtually on a daily basis, purely for financial gain.”

“The callous act of deliberately ramming a boat full of hundreds of defenceless people is a crime that must not go unpunished. If the survivors’ accounts are indeed true – and they appear all too credible – we are looking at what amounts to mass murder in the Mediterranean.”

Similar efforts, he said, should also be made to punish and deter such crimes in other parts of the world, including the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Caribbean as well as those carried out against migrants and refugees using land routes.

“All countries would throw the full weight of their police forces and justice systems behind an investigation if the victims were their own citizens and were killed by criminal gangs on their own soil,” Zeid said. “The reaction should not be any less rigorous just because the victims are foreigners and the crime took place on the high seas. Yet very few people who kill, rape or rob migrants during their journeys end up in court.”

According to the 11 survivors interviewed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the migrants and refugees first embarked on a boat in the Egyptian port of Damietta. The passengers included a substantial number of Palestinians, many of them from Gaza, along with Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese and possibly other nationalities.

All witnesses interviewed so far told IOM staff that the smugglers who deliberately rammed the boat far out to sea between Malta and Greece were either Egyptian or Palestinian. The High Commissioner urged the Greek, Maltese and Italian authorities to share information on the identity of the smugglers with the Egyptian authorities, who he said should immediately also launch a full and thorough investigation. “You cannot transport large quantities of foreigners in buses into a major port and cram them on board a ship without the port authorities and other witnesses being aware of what is going on,” Zeid said.

While recognizing the complexity of modern migration movements, Zeid urged all States to remember that migrants have the same rights as all other human beings. He stressed that the root causes of such tragedies must be tackled by the relevant States and by the international community.

“Far too many refugees and migrants are dying all across the world in an effort to flee conflict, systematic political oppression and human rights violations, including economic deprivation. These root causes in their countries of origin must be tackled in a concerted manner,” Zeid said.

“We also need a renewed effort to find ways to manage refugee and other migratory movements in an orderly manner that reduces the need for people to resort to unscrupulous people smugglers. The European Union, other destination States, transit countries and countries of origin must do more to address the range of factors pushing so many people into the arms of the smugglers. The focus, at every stage of the process needs to be on respect for the rights and inherent dignity of every human being.”

Zeid warned that xenophobia-driven politics continue to undermine Governments’ determination to find real solutions to an increasingly desperate situation in many parts of the world. He stressed that it is essential that refugees are able to escape to safety, and that States do not penalize them for taking irregular routes, as well as taking more robust steps to protect them when they do.

“There were refugees as well as economic migrants on board this boat,” Zeid said. “The largest and fastest-growing group of people claiming asylum in Europe in 2014 are Syrians – a clear manifestation of the deplorable failure to bring that conflict to an end, and of increasing pressures, frustrations and loss of hope on the part of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees, the great majority of whom are still in over-burdened neighbouring States,” the High Commissioner added. Other major groups of asylum seekers that have been rising sharply in Europe over the past year include Iraqis and Eritreans, many of whom are escaping systematic political oppression and forced conscription.