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UN expert: rich countries must take in 1 million refugees to stop boat deaths

UN special rapporteur says inaction is creating a market for people smugglers, adding that world needs to take in a million Syrians over next five years
1000A migrant is helped to disembark in the Sicilian harbour of Pozzallo. About 100 migrants, including 28 children, were rescued on Sunday 19 April by a merchant vessel. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Wealthy countries should agree on a comprehensive plan to take 1 million refugees from Syria over the next five years to end the unfolding series of boat disasters in the Mediterranean, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has urged.

In a Guardian interview, François Crépeau said Europe was creating a market for people smugglers by failing to act on Syria. He said his plan could be extended to seven years or widened to include other nationalities, including Eritreans who have been fleeing war.

Migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean have claimed more than 1,750 lives this year – 30 times more than in the same period in 2014.

“We know a great number of Syrians in particular are going to leave these countries and if we don’t provide any official mechanism for them to do so, they will resort to smugglers. The inaction of Europe is actually what creates the market for smugglers,” said Crépeau, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

“We could collectively offer to resettle 1 million Syrians over the next five years. For a country like the UK, this would probably be around 14,000 Syrians a year for five years. For Canada, it would mean less than 9,000 a year for five years – a drop in the bucket. For Australia, it would probably be less than 5,000 per year for five years.

“We can manage that.”

Crépeau’s comments came as Italy pressed the EU to devise concrete, robust steps to stop the tide of migrants on smugglers’ boats, including setting up refugee camps in countries bordering Libya.

Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, said Italy had saved 200,000 migrant lives at sea since the start of 2014 but that his country’s “noble, generous reaction alone isn’t enough”.

“We are asking Europe to be Europe, not just when it’s time to devise a budget,” Renzi said, to help combat “21st-century slave drivers” of migrants.

The defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, also said human traffickers must be targeted with military intervention. “We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” Pinotti told Sky TG24 TV. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

On Monday night, one of the leading smugglers at the main departure point for Mediterranean migrant crossings in Libya scoffed at plans to launch a military campaign. “What are they going to do, put two frigates here? Two warships? In Libyan waters? That’s an invasion,” the smuggler told the Guardian.

On Thursday, EU leaders will hold an emergency summit in Brussels in the wake of a shipwreck off Libya last weekend that authorities believe may have killed more than 800 migrants. If confirmed, it would be the highest known loss of migrants’ lives in a single incident in the Mediterranean.

In the latest arrival of migrants, an Italian naval vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Augusta with 446 people on board who had been rescued from a smugglers’ boat on Tuesday off Italy’s southern coast. The navy said 59 of the migrants are children.

Britain has given £700m in humanitarian aid to Syria but agreed to settle only 143 Syrian refugees. That has been criticised by Nigel Farage, the leader of the rightwing Ukip party, who is otherwise hardline on immigration. The US has a similar record.

Crépeau said the west had to acknowledge the refugees were “stuck in a place where there’s no future for themselves or their children” and had to change policy.

“This is going to be a long-term commitment and we should go at it together. It’s a much better system for everyone – you reduce the number of deaths, you reduce the smuggling business model, and you reduce the cost of asylum claims.”

The plan could allow Syrian refugees to apply from places such as Istanbul, Amman and Beirut to come to Europe, North America and Australia “for a meaningful chance to resettle, instead of paying thousands of euros to only die with their children in the Mediterranean”.

Crépeau also defended “economic migrants”, many who try to come to Europe and developed countries from sub-Saharan Africa. They were “people who may not be in need of protection but are desperate for a future because there’s no job for them anywhere near their country”.

Instead of resisting mobility, countries had to organise it, Crépeau said. That meant taking action on poor working conditions and tackling the underground labour market.


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