December 11, 2014 | ABC News
Almost 350,000 people have taken to the seas this year in search of asylum or migration, the United Nations refugee agency says.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said this was a record number of people involved in the risky sea journeys around the world.
Since January this year, 348,000 people had boarded the boats. The bulk of the arrivals had been in Europe, where more than 207,000 people had crossed the Mediterranean.
This was almost three times more than the previous high of about 70,000 in 2011 during the Libyan civil war.
The conflicts in Libya were again a factor this year, as well as the situation in Syria and Iraq, and the war in Ukraine.
Worldwide this year 4,272 people had died in the process of making sea journeys.
Governments must focus on saving lives: UNHCR
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said governments must focus on saving lives, rather than keeping foreigners out.
“This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” he said in a statement.
“Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”
Mr Guterres said the international community’s response had been marred by confusion over how to tackle the problem.
He said all players should address the root causes of why people had fled and should crack down on the criminal networks profiting from desperate would-be migrants.
He also highlighted the importance of having systems to deal with arrivals to distinguish real refugees from migrants.
His comments were made as the UNHCR began a two-day debate on the issue with government officials, aid workers, coastguards, lawyers, academics and other experts.
Less than two months ago Italy announced it would halt a sea rescue mission — Mare Nostrum — that had saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East since it began more than a year ago.
Italy said it would be replaced by a smaller European Union scheme.
Boat people ‘at risk of beatings, torture, rape’
UNHCR said for the first time, people from “refugee producing countries” had become a major source of those leaving their homelands by boat, accounting for almost half the individuals undertaking sea journeys.
Most were from Syria, where conflict has raged for nearly four years, and Eritrea, where human rights experts said national service was an indefinite conscription that amounted to forced labour.
Besides the Mediterranean, there were at least three other major sea routes being used by migrants and asylum seekers.
In the Horn of Africa, more than 80,000 people, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia, crossed the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea between the start of January and the end of November en route to Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
In South East Asia, an estimated 54,000 people had taken to the sea so far this year, most of them leaving Bangladesh or Myanmar to head to Thailand or Malaysia.
In the Caribbean, nearly 5,000 people took to boats to flee poverty or in search of asylum, UNHCR said.
Many travel in rickety, unseaworthy boats. Others die or fall victim to human traffickers.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler on Friday said ethnic tensions in Myanmar and little prospect of integration in Bangladesh were driving more Rohingya — a mostly stateless Muslim people — to the open seas.
He said the vast majority use people smugglers, who typically charge them very little, to make the crossings. Once they arrive they were held for ransom in secluded camps.
“In some cases these people stay there for months under terrible conditions,” Mr Spindler said.
“We know of beatings, torture, rape against these refugees and migrants.”