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Call for a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on the Human Rights of Migrants at Sea

To Permanent Representatives of Member States of the UN Human Rights Council, and Observer States of Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Togo

Your Excellency,

We are writing to you to ask your delegation to urgently consider calling for a Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights of migrants at sea. The devastating event in Lampedusa speaks for itself, and warrants a serious response at the international level. These tragedies are unfortunately not confined to Europe: on September 27, a boat destined for Australia capsized off Indonesia, claiming at least 30 lives, including children.

A special session could provide the Human Rights Council with an opportunity to ask a group of Special Procedures to develop guidelines on how to increase protection for migrants at sea and prevent violations of their rights. There are several grey areas in international law and its application to migrants at sea that would benefit from clarification by UN human rights experts.

Such guidelines would help clarify state responsibility and obligations vis-à-vis migrants at sea and may help prevent further tragedies. Such guidelines would be very helpful to NGOs like HRW that work on these issues. We would use such guidelines to pressure governments and the European Union to comply with their obligations under international law and to take all steps necessary to minimize loss of life. As you know the EU is currently discussing how to strengthen its response to this issue. Such guidelines would help steer such discussions by indicating what the adequate standards of protection are and what measures of prevention are necessary.

Our research in specific contexts has shown that there are disincentives on commercial ships to live up to their legal obligation to assist persons in distress at sea. These include delays in disembarkation of rescued migrants due to disagreements among receiving states over responsibility for hosting and processing them, and threats and prosecution of captains and crew in some instances on people smuggling charges. The concept of distress is narrowly interpreted, allowing ships to ignore dangerously overcrowded boats unless there are very clear signals that lives are at risk. In the past our research has documented State behavior that puts migrants at risk by pushing them back into the high seas despite the fact that they are on board fragile or dangerous vessels (for more on this topic, please refer to our paper “Hidden Emergency – Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean” of August 2012, available online). We also note discrepancies in some instances in the treatment of migrants arriving by boat and those arriving by air or land.

We remain at your disposal for any further clarification or discussion.


Julie De Rivero

Geneva Director

Human Rights Watch

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