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Guterres: Who Asks Libya to Stop Refugees Violates International Law

The Agreement Italy-Libya on migration, if it impacts refugees, it would violate international law

Press Conference on International Refugee Day. (Stéphane Dujarric, Secretary-General's spokesman (left), UN Secretary-General António Guterres (right) UN Photo/ Evan Schneider

For UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, refugee protection is not a matter of solidarity or generosity, but an obligation under international law. At the Press Conference held for World Refugee Day, Guterres confirmed that Italy's agreement with Libya risks, if it does not only involve migrants, to violate the rights of refugees and International Law

In honor of Refugee Day, marked annually on June 20, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres held a press conference at the New York UN Headquarters briefing journalists on the current refugee crisis. As the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, migrants and refugee crises are priorities for Guterres; however there were unfortunately very few questions about these issues from the UN correspondents.

For Guterres, refugee protection is not a matter of solidarity or generosity, but an obligation under international law. The UN Secretary-General detailed five strong appeals to the international community for respecting refugee rights.

“We are still witnessing many remarkable examples of  solidarity in today’s world, but at the same time, we are seeing more and more borders being closed, we are seeing more and more refugees being rejected and, namely, in the countries of the developed world,” said Guterres in his first press conference in New York, since becoming Secretary-General.

Guterres urged governments to manage their borders, increase to their resettlement quotas, and protect asylum seekers and people who deserve protection. He also advocated for more funding in humanitarian aid work.

Journalists took the opportunity of this press conference to ask the SG questions about many different issues. SG Guterres relayed that a regional solution is the most effective solution for Qatar’s crisis, welcoming Kuwait’s mediation. He also stated that there was a huge mobilization in the UN system regarding famines in Somalia and South Sudan and spoke in favor of the peacekeeping agreements conducted by the G5 Sahel countries -Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger-on the perilous security situation in the desert areas. The SG even spoke about the UN’s disagreement with the US leaving the Paris Agreement and bluntly noted that if the US disengages with UN forces and standards, then it will be unavoidable for other actors not to take their position, which he did not advise. When asked if the SG was going to address his concerns with the White House administration on the climate change and the refugee crisis, he said that “my visit is set to Congress and I conveyed my intentions very clearly to the US administration. The US is one of the largest resettlement countries in the world and I would appreciate if they came back to the levels of resettlement that we witnessed 2-3 yrs ago.”

On  World Refugee Day , Guterres announced that he would be leaving for Uganda, which hosted a UN-backed summit to support the more than 1.3 million refugees within its borders for the next four years. Some 950,000 refugees from South Sudan have crossed into Uganda since the start of the conflict in the world’s newest country in December 2013. “The figure is three times higher than the number of refugees who crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe last year,” Mr. Guterres said, adding that, “not only in Uganda, but land provides protection for the refugees everywhere.”

In contrast, Guterres had sharp words for developed countries not doing enough to provide support for refugees or take them in despite heart breaking pleas for food, water and other basics. Some 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries with “a dramatic impact” on their economy, society and security, he noted. “This is particularly worrying, especially when associated to forms of political populism, xenophobia, racism, in which refugees become a target,” the UN Secretary General said, “many times being accused of being part of the terror threat when refugees are not terrorists – they are the first victims of terror, they are fleeing terror; that is why they are refugees.”

Addressing the difference between  refugees and migrants , Guterres said that the UN General Assembly will hold two key debates with the aim of agreeing on two compacts – one-on-one on refugees and migration next year. “We are talking about two different situations: refugees crossing borders, fleeing conflict or prosecution, [and] economic migrants who aspire legitimately to have a better life and move from one country to another, aiming at a better future for them and their children,” said the Secretary-General. He added that migration is necessary: “If something is necessary, it’s better to control it rather than let smugglers and traffickers be in charge of these movements regularly.”

At the very end of the conference, when microphones were turned off and the majority of the press corps were out the door, we of The Voice had a specific question for the Secretary General, a question whose urgency also originated from a statement given during the introductory speech he made just before the reporters asked him questions. Guterres stated that it was very important for Member States to respect the rights of refugees because they are obliged by international law to receive them. Also, he said that developed countries who request agreements with third parties who are not able to receive refugees to retain them in their territory are violating international law. To follow up, we had a question concerning the arrangements made by Italy with Libya, a question that we were unable to ask directly during the press conference. Before Guterres left the room, we approached him and asked him to clarify: in the specific case of Italy, does it mean they are not respecting international law in their two agreements with Libya? Guterres stopped, despite his staff inciting him to leave the room to conclude the press conference, and seemed rather happy to answer the question asked by La Voce. He responded saying, “yes, if the agreement is made with a country like Libya that is not at this time able to accept and respect the rights of refugees, then the state asks that the agreement does not respect international law.” We had to follow- up, “So, Italy is not Respecting international law,” and he retorted with “when it comes to Libya and the rights of refugees, that is the case.”

After few hours, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, wrote us this email: “To be clear, the SG was talking in general terms about refugee law and countries obligations. He does not know the intricacies of Italian law to comment on it.”

When Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano came to the UN trumpeting the upcoming agreements with Libya and Niger, we quickly realized that Italy was risking a tremendous amount. Last month, we especially realized this when the head of the International Tribunal on Human Rights, Fatou Bensouda, spoke at a press conference . Of course, Italy is talking about migrants and not refugees, but we know how difficult it is to distinguish between the desperate people who arrive in Libya from Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia after crossing the desert. What is the government is doing to ascertain Gentiloni, so that Libya is not stopping refugees as well? Now, we have confirmation from Guterres that Italy’s closing agreements with Libya to stop the flow of migrants puts their lives in jeopardy. Libyan refugees are forced into Libyan Lagers where men, women and children are destined to die of starvation or be sold as slaves.

Update, 6/21/17:

In the standard noon briefing, La Voce asked Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, a follow-up question partially rescaled by Spokesperson for the SG, Stéphane Dujarric’s email. La Voce asked whether the Secretary General believes that if a state enters into refugee agreements with an already unstable country like Libya that is unable to hosting them, would this state be violating international law. The deputy spokesman replied, “I do not think the Secretary General’s answer referred to this particular agreement, but simply to international standards,” and added, “I have not heard specifically about Libya, but the SG made it clear in his speech and his responses yesterday that nations need to deal with and ensure that the lives of refugees and migrants are not endangered, and this must be a priority. So that is where international laws and norms must be respected.”As you can see, the answer remains hanging. It is understood that Libya is not in a position to maintain the rights of refugees in the SG’s view, but he is refraining of expressing a specific view on Italy’s agreement with the Libyan government on this issue.

(Seek video from: 11:15-15:23)

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