Migration: Speech by ICRC president to Council of Europe

Speech by Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, on 26 October 2016.

First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to address you here today. The work of the Council of Europe and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) overlap on some crucial issues, while our approach, mandate and methodology are different. For the people who suffer in today's protracted conflicts and prolonged uncertainty through armed conflict, violence and fragility, both, political direction as well as neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action are important.

In this respect it is critical that we share our preoccupations and cooperate ever more substantively. For the ICRC, as a humanitarian organization, it remains obvious that above all, humanitarian problems require political solutions, and we welcome all of your efforts toward conflict management, resolution and reconciliation through the respect for the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, fundamental freedoms as well as through pan-European co-operation.

If we take a moment to look at which themes have shaped the international debate lately, particularly in Europe, one issue clearly stands out for me: migration as well as some issue related to the movement of populations: the missing and dead migrants as well as immigration detention – both issues of concerns for our respective organizations. I look forward to hearing your views on these issues, and I would like to give you a brief overview of where we stand from a humanitarian perspective.

For us, the current – admittedly heated, and at times dangerously aggressive debate is neither new nor surprising, as we work in many of the places of origin of migration and displacement. Pressure on infrastructures and services through population movement, tensions between host and displaced communities, competition over jobs and economic development are by no means limited to one geographic area.

But particularly in Europe, migration has become a catch-all term that often overlooks the differences between forced displacement and voluntary migration, between people in need of special protection and those who migrate on their own will, between internal and international migration, between regular and irregular flows.

Yet while the dynamic isn't new, it has reached dramatic dimensions: more than 65 million people were forcibly displaced in 2015, of which roughly one third are refugees, with two thirds – the clear majority – being displaced in their own country, often multiple times. Those countries that host the most refugees are exclusively countries neighboring conflict-affected nations, like Ethiopia, Kenya, or Chad in Africa, and Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey closer to Europe.

As conflicts continue to last, so does the displacement of those who fled in fear, and by extension so lasts the uncertainty and insecurity that come with it. The top 11 conflicts in the world have created dynamics, where people are now displaced for an average of more than 30 years, or half a lifetime.

The ICRC works both in the countries in which displacements originate and into which people flee. We aim to assist internally displaced persons and their host communities and to support migrants on their journeys, often together with national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, to ensure they have access to minimal healthcare, and that they can get in touch with their families.

The sky-rocketing human costs of involuntary displacement, but also the exorbitant financial costs, pushing the humanitarian response along migration routes and even in rich host countries to its limits, underlines the need for political solutions to the conflicts which prompt people to flee their homes. The increasingly intense debates in Europe about receiving, hosting and facilitating the integration – or not – of refugees and migrants is also a consequence of the lack of political investment in what is at the root of preventing some large movements of migration: peace.

But as long as political solutions remain elusive, States must respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law, as is their obligation per common article 1 of the Geneva Conventions. One means to do so is to provide support, for instance by seconding detention management experts, legal advisers or military experts on the conduct of hostilities to countries in need of such expertise. I would like to encourage you to explore the feasibility of such secondments with your respective governments.

In this regard, we acknowledge the unique contribution of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as of other Council of Europe standards and instruments for the protection of the rights of individuals within its Member States.

Migrants face high levels of vulnerability and protection risks during the various stages of their journey. A considerable number of migrants are left "stranded" in war-torn countries, others are held in prolonged detention for irregular entry or stay in a country. Due to their administrative situation, migrants are often denied access to health services, housing, legal assistance and education, which further increases their vulnerability.

The vulnerability I speak of is not negligible and cannot be dismissed as a reasonable or acceptable risk. Year after year, significant numbers of migrants perish on the journey from their country of origin to their final destination while others get seriously injured or undergo great ordeals. We cannot and we must not accept these tragedies.

More than 3,500 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean since the beginning of this year alone. There is a clear need to facilitate the transmission of information about the fate and whereabouts of missing to their families, and a need to strengthen the management of the dead bodies and data on deceased persons.

At the national level, there are a number of aspects and measures related to the protection and assistance of migrants that can help reduce and mitigate vulnerabilities of migrants. These include: respect for domestic and international law, in particular, the principle of non-refoulement, using administrative detention as a measure of last resort, undertaking early identification and assistance of the most vulnerable individuals, taking measures to prevent family separation, preserve family unity and to support families in their search for missing relatives and in the clarification of their fate and whereabouts.

At the ICRC we strongly believe that such policies should be driven, first and foremost, by humanity and should focus on the dignity, and safety of migrants, to alleviate and avoid suffering. To this end, State policies must uphold migrants' rights and of course comply with international and domestic obligations. And while some States may have legitimate security concerns, these must be balanced against humanitarian considerations. Ultimately, these must be the decisive factors shaping migration policies and procedures – and their implementation – at the international, regional and national levels.

I know that you all follow the issue of migration closely and I strongly believe that joint efforts, innovative pilot responses and more systematic exchange of information can help improve the current realities for many migrants.

The Committee of Experts on Conditions of Detention is reportedly in the process of exploring a legal instrument codifying the existing international standards relating to administrative detention of migrants, and I look forward to its conclusions next year. As you may know, we are eager to participate in this committee as observer, to contribute with our long-standing experience, there, too.

We are equally ready to participate and contribute to the efforts of the new working group aiming at conducting analysis on legal and practical aspects of alternatives to detention.

I know the CoE and its representatives have been active in supporting member states to adapt domestic legislation and procedures to align with international obligations, ranging from the principle of non-refoulement, firmly anchored in international law, to the prevention of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

A few months before the committee in charge of this file travelled to Greece, I was in Lesbos and Athens myself, after visits to some of the main places of origin of migration, including Syria and Afghanistan.

What I heard from people – in the countryside in Afghanistan, in the bombed-out centre of Homs, in arrival facilities in Greece, and also in refugee centres in Berlin – is that they fled their homes due to violence and fighting, due to the implosion of public services that mean that there is no clean drinking water, no electricity, no heating, no schools for their children.

And they all tell me the same thing: they want to go home. But for this, they need three things: jobs for the adults, schools for the children, and safety for the communities. And while not all the people arriving in Europe are fleeing war and violence, substantively less would arrive if IHL were respected, communities were effectively assisted and more effective solutions of conflicts negotiated.

As a humanitarian organization, we don't make a difference upfront in the motives that push migrants to leave their homes and seek safety and opportunities abroad. The only determining factor to us is their vulnerability. And we know that the hazards of migration, particularly irregular migration, do not distinguish between security-related or economic motives. Whether a person is internally displaced in their country, a refugee, an asylum seeker, or an irregular migrant, they face particular vulnerabilities on migration routes. What they often face together as a challenge is reckless exploitation by criminal networks, traffickers and other criminals. We need to develop policies that address this situation.

Let me add a few thoughts on the issue of immigration detention here.

The ÍCRC has consistently held a clear position on this issue: detention should be an exceptional measure; liberty and alternatives to detention should always be considered first; Detention can only be ordered on the basis of a decision taken in each individual case, without discrimination of any kind; Any detention must be determined to be necessary, reasonable and proportionate to a legitimate purpose; Detention should be limited in time; Conditions and treatment in administrative detention should be non-punitive; Migrants must be allowed to have contact with members of their family; Respect for key procedural safeguards is essential; Migrants have the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution; The special circumstances of certain categories of especially vulnerable migrants, such as children, victims of torture or trafficking, persons with mental disabilities and/or health conditions, and elderly people, should be considered. Detention of these vulnerable groups should be avoided.

In consequence, we, and national societies of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, work in prisons to help ensure detainees can have contact with their relatives. We support prison authorities towards a proper centralization and systematization of data so that people are found in detention places and do not go missing, and their families can be swiftly informed of their whereabouts.

I acknowledge the work conducted by the CoE in this area, particularly the PACE resolution of 2010 on Detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe setting out ten guiding principles governing the circumstances in which the detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants may be legally permissible, and calling upon member states to fully comply with their obligations under international human rights and refugee law. As recommended in the resolution, the ICRC seeks to play a part in this consultative body.

The work that the CoE is currently conducting under the Committee of Experts on Conditions of Detention (CJ-DAM) on the condition of immigration detention and the work that will be done under the new Working Group (DH-MIG) on Alternatives to Detention is also of utmost importance. Here, too, we are interested to participate and contribute as best we can.

Another issue closely linked to the challenges around migration is that of persons who have gone missing or disappeared. An unknown number of migrants go missing along migration routes year after year, with their locations never traced and their bodies never found. Families are left in the despair of not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

Such disappearances constitute one of the world's most complex and most underreported humanitarian challenges.

It is in government's and State's power to generate the political will indispensable to collect and provide information on missing persons, both alive and dead, that can help bring answers to families. This is an effort that requires that all involved institutions and powers collaborate and cooperate. The individual fates of people gone missing know no borders, and neither does the suffering of their families. So working together is essential to find answers.

The centralized register and unified procedures for recording and identifying dead migrants, as called for in the recent PACE report The Mediterranean Sea: a front door to irregular migration, is a constructive and pragmatic way to enable the tracing of missing persons throughout European countries.

Families will suffer in perpetual uncertainty for as long as their relative is missing and this often affects whole communities, which struggle with finding stability, peace and reconciliation for generations. This is why the ICRC urges all those who can, to contribute to finding answers.

I acknowledge the important work carried out by the Council of Europe on the issue of missing and dead migrants. The Council and the Commissioner for Human Rights play a key role in influencing European countries to take steps to shed light on the fate and whereabouts of tens of thousands of persons who went missing or disappeared following conflicts across the continent.

I read with great interest the March paper published by Commissioner Muižnieks, with its nine sets of recommendations to help States improve their legislation and practice. In the ICRC's view these constitute an important step forward on the matter. Let me note here our appreciation for the important role of the current Estonian as well as the upcoming Cypriot and Czech chairmanships of the committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It is your duty to ensure the issue of missing persons stays high on the Council's agenda, and I trust your commitment to make this a reality.

From our perspective, keeping in mind both the humanitarian consequences and the protective capacity of the law, we deem a three-fold approach to be most effective, linking legal instruments with prevention and reactive measures.

As part of our own preventive measures, we promote the development and support the adoption and implementation of laws and regulations concerning missing persons and their families.

Through our forensic experts, we provide training and technical support to help ensure the proper and dignified management of the dead.

The search for missing persons starts with the beginning of a conflict, but it does not end when the conflict ends. So regardless of the status of the conflict, we continue – often for many decades – to search, trace, and reunite families wherever and whenever possible, or to assist families and inform them of the death of their missing relative. To this end, we depend on authorities fulfilling their obligations to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons.

For example, more than twenty years after the end of the conflict in Abkhazia, there are more than 2,300 open cases of persons who went missing during the conflict. For more than half of those, their relatives don't know whether they are dead or alive. And so the uncertainty continues, with families wondering every day for years and decades, whether they will one day find their loved ones again.

We support authorities towards the collection of useful information and proper information management systems: whether it is ongoing conflicts or past conflicts, frozen conflicts or migration, information on missing persons or unidentified bodies, information in relation to detainees or gravesites, or any other useful information that might put an end to the plight of families of missing persons.

The reality on the ground dictates our response, and we continually adapt our services to the needs of affected people. Particularly in regions where we are the only international humanitarian organization, like in Ukraine where we continue to work in all parts of the country, pragmatic solutions for clean water, for heating in the winter, for medical assistance and for family contact, are essential.

Sometimes all it takes is a phone, to call your family. So we provide phones. In other places, access to power, to charge phones is what is missing, so we provide that, in full respect of the privacy of everyone concerned of course, and with particular attention to the needs of unaccompanied children.

Support to families struggling with the disappearance of loved ones is another part of our daily work across operations in 61 countries. Besides the emotional toll, there might be financial and administrative challenges to handle, particularly during special events such as exhumations, the return of human remains, or the collection of DNA samples.

As families of missing persons are to be considered themselves victims of the disappearance as much as the missing person, we support and encourage authorities to acknowledge and better respond to the families' needs, too.

To give you an idea of the dimensions of our work: last year alone, we helped almost half a million people to re-establish contact through free phone calls. We reunited 1000 children with their families. And we visited more than 25,000 detainees, monitoring each of them individually. In addition we helped with forensic services in 53 countries and supported 19 States in the development of national laws and measures related to missing persons and their families.

This demonstrates the need for the political will of authorities to collect and share data on missing persons, and also to facilitate the recovery and identification of human remains, particularly in post-conflict situations. With regard to missing and dead migrants, it is first and foremost States' responsibility to ensure that dead bodies are recovered, managed with dignity, and – where possible – identified and returned.

Centralized databases with post-mortem information on dead bodies, both at national and European levels, would constitute an important step forward on this matter. Of course, the obligation to assist and rescue persons in distress at sea must be respected, in accordance with international law. Saving lives must be the priority of any operation. And where possible, rescuers should recover dead bodies for identification, and eventually, to be returned to their families.

There are several ways States, including the Council of Europe member states, can help, in the search and reunification of persons who went missing, be it in relation to a conflict or migration in general.

States and parties involved in conflicts must acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and the suffering it causes.

Legal frameworks and regulations aiming at identifying and accounting for people reported missing are essential. Here, effective and centralized management systems will make a difference, be it in detention centers, hospitals, or relating to dead bodies and potential gravesites. Such information of course will have the greatest impact when it is shared and accessible.

To this end, the ICRC recommends that governmental bodies should include families in any search process, that human remains are treated with dignity and respect, and in line with international and local laws and customs.

I count on you to renew your commitment in this regard and use your influence to shape both legal and operational frameworks, and to continue to work towards lasting political solutions to conflicts to reduce the suffering of people.

As I tried to demonstrate: a law and principled based approach is not in contradiction with political pragmatism. On migration and many related issues, laws and principles must inform practical solutions and not be used as a political weapon to polarize the decision-making process. The Council of Europe has a unique chance to show the way for workable, pragmatic solutions rooted in laws and principles.


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