An official from the UN’s refugee agency has sparked controversy by expressing concern over the alleged “radicalisation of migratory dreams”.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, was commenting on the Open Arms migrant rescue ship.
The vessel had been stranded off the Italian island of Lampedusa for weeks with Rome refusing to allow it to dock.
Spain offered to let the migrants disembark in Mallorca but the NGO Open Arms rejected this saying it would exacerbate the already trying conditions on board.
This prompted Cochetel to tweet: “Open Arms rejects Spanish offer of safe haven… while I understand the difficulty of the situation on board, I am very concerned by the radicalisation of the migratory dreams & demands of some migrants & refugees in Libya & neighbouring countries.”
His comments came shortly before the Open Arms ship, which was stranded at sea for 19 days, was eventually allowed to disembark in Italy after an Italian prosecutor ordered the seizure of the ship.
People were quick to respond to Cochetel on social media.
“Radicalisation of migratory dreams? Just wow,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) communications adviser Alessandro Siclari tweeted.
Siclari told Euronews he was surprised by the statements of the senior UNHCR official, but that ultimately the tweet reflected Cochetel’s personal opinion and does not represent the views of the UN agency.
Another social media user questioned the UNHCR’s mandate, stating, that they thought the agency was “concerned by the radicalisation of the EU Member States refusal to comply with asylum and SAR international laws and regulations. Did I misunderstand your mandate?”
Cochetel defended his comments in response to our article, tweeting: “There is no controversy, it is just abnormal that some refugees refuse to attend language & vocational training classes, job placement in some countries because they claim that they only want to go to EU & that UNHCR has an obligation to resettle them!”
Euronews reached out to Cochetel directly but he did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
Cochetel later said his tweets “may have been misunderstood”.
“Too many refugee lives are being lost/ruined on the dangerous routes to Europe via Libya. It cannot be the best/only solution. Most refugees don’t make this choice. Some protection solutions exist along the way & more legal pathways needed,” Cochetel wrote on Twitter.
The tweets prompted a debate on where asylum seekers may or may not apply for protection.
Seeking asylum in Europe
Charlie Yaxley, a UNHCR spokesperson for Africa, the Mediterranean and Libya explained there is a “rising trend” of “people who insist on only wanting to seek asylum in Europe.”
In a statement provided to Euronews, Yaxley said: “People fleeing from conflicts in East and West African countries typically apply for asylum in neighbouring countries. The asylum system in place since the 1951 Refugee Convention requires you to apply in the country you are in,” he explained. “Asylum seekers do not have the choice on where to ask [for] asylum.”
On Twitter, Yaxley further responded: “A person should apply for asylum in the territory they are in. You cannot withhold your asylum claim in the hopes of getting a better offer elsewhere.”
But many international lawyers state that this interpretation of international refugee law is contested.
“Based on what data is the UNHCR accusing their own clients — people in need of international protection — of wanting more [than] they are entitled to by law?” said Omer Shatz, an international law lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (SciencesPo).
“Under international law, no one is obliged to file [an] asylum claim in [their] first state of arrival or transit. Cochetel’s political statements contradict the fundamental principles on which UNHCR is founded and operating, they are more appropriate to Salvini and far-right politicians.”
Adel-Naim Reyhani who works on asylum and migration law at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights said that there is a dispute about the concept of “safe third country” or “first country of asylum”.
“International law does not contain any obligations of refugees as to where asylum should or must be claimed,” he said.
James Hathaway, who is the director of Michigan Law School’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law wrote on Twitter that “individuals are free to travel to whatever state they wish to make a claim”.**
Shatz added that as a matter of policy, “you do not want all refugees to be stuck in neighbouring countries… as a matter of fact, today most of the world’s refugees are already located in neighbouring, African countries.”
Indeed, often those fleeing violence and conflict end up in refugee camps set up by the UNHCR.
Some ask for asylum in countries enduring violence and conflict such as Libya, which hosts over 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.
Global displacement is at a record high, according to the International Organisation for Migration with “current estimates” at around 244 million international migrants globally.
“The dream of arriving in Europe is not given in the Geneva Convention, but the comment on the aspirations of migrants could have been avoided by UNHCR, an organisation that was created to protect asylum seekers,” said Matteo Villa, an expert on migration issues at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
“The Open Arms issue has nothing to do with migrants’ dreams, who make no difference between arriving in Spain or Italy, but has to do with a problem created by European countries. Saying that migrants have unattainable dreams on the ship doesn’t reflect the complexity of the problem, no matter what international law says. It was not a good time to make that comment,” Villa said about the Cochetel tweet.
“In essence, the message was ‘stay where you are and be happy about what states offer you’,” Reyhani tweeted about the UNHCR response.