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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

UNHCR envoy suggests punishing parents if children travel for safety

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

It is time we stopped pretending the people responsible for deaths at sea and on other routes used by people seeking safety, are anyone other than governments and the politicians within them. Most particularly, we must break the false narrative in which those travelling, and even their parents, are the problem.

The UNHCR envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean situation, Vincent Cochetel, has Tweeted his desire for the parents of people who travel to seek asylum and/or a better life, to be prosecuted and publicly shamed, including if their child dies in the attempt.

Cochetel’s astonishing Tweet was made in response to an event in Zarzis, Tunisia today, in which the lives of people who have gone missing while attempting to travel north from the state were remembered with a march including the town’s fishermen (who are often the ones who discover bodies at sea) and activists.

The march was led by the mothers of those lost at sea.

Cochetel said:

Grieving for the loss. But the same mothers had no problem encouraging or funding their children to embark on those dangerous journeys. Like in Senegal, symbolically prosecuting parents for putting at risk their children could trigger serious attitudinal change on death journeys.

Now, even were we to set aside the absolute tone-deafness and inhumane disgrace of making such a Tweet in response to grieving mothers leading a march to remember their dead children, its content is absolutely horrendous.

Because Cochetel is supposed to be an envoy for UNHCR, a body whose sole purpose is to promote and protect the rights and lives of men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work.

Which means that, first of all, he absolutely must know – or accept he is incapable of doing his job – that under international law any man, woman or child is entitled to leave their home country and travel to any other to seek asylum.

The point being that travelling is not illegal, and certainly should not be punished with death, but Cochetel is promoting the punishment not even of people who -perfectly within their legal rights – travel, but their parents. Even if their child actually dies. He wants those mothers to be publicly-shamed with ‘prosecutions’ even though they and their children did absolutely nothing wrong.

On the topic of which, it is Cochetel’s job to know whether this is being done in Senegal, though it appears he may well not understand the law directly relevant to his role, so he could easily be mistaken. If this is happening, it must stop. Immediately. it is a horrific cruelty to punish people who have broken no law, for the actions of their absent children, who have also broken no law. Especially if those children died doing the perfectly legal thing the punishment is for.

Secondly, he must know that people leave their homes for a massive variety of reasons, almost all of them good. These include the fear or direct risk of death or persecution, and also economic reasons which can include lack of access to food, clean water, shelter or medicine at home. While the second group of reasons do not necessarily qualify one for asylum, they are understandable and good, and once again, it is every person’s right to travel.

To try to ‘discourage’ this by punishing parents is absolutely to punish people for taking legal action to improve a situation not of their own making, but forced upon them, almost always by a government.

Not only that, but the reason the journeys people take are so dangerous – which is presumably the excuse he has for making this statement – are also all, at heart, government (and in the case of the EU, several governments) decisions.

Governments have consistently – as in the case of Greece since 2016 and more particularly 2019, and the UK since 2011 – closed down routes by which people could safely travel to places where they might wish to apply for asylum.

This is not just by closing routes on ‘standard’, safe transport and ‘regular’ routes, which in and of itself pushes people into the arms of ’freelancers’ and boats unfit for travel on the more dangerous routes on which they operate, but also by closing even those routes, leaving only the most dangerous, and longest ‘open’ to anyone.

These governments have created a situation in which only those they call ‘smugglers’ (who are almost all nothing of the sort) are the sole providers of transport – effectively the only people allowing others to exercise their legal right, and often need, to travel.

And this situation means that governments have forced people in need of assistance into the hands of people whose vessels cannot survive the long and/or perilous journeys those governments have ensured are the only ones possible.

That is, in short, Cochetel is blaming, and demanding the punishment of, the victims in this situation, and completely ignoring the reality that governments breaking international law – and which should be punished for doing so – have caused it in its entirety.

We must note that later in the day, Cochetel posted a new tweet, saying:

Sorry if my words are strong. I did not mean to hurt anyone. It is heart-breaking to see again so many lives being lost. I just hope that people would not have to take such crazy risks to leave Tunisia and that no-one would encourage them to do so. Safe and orderly pathways are needed.

This is a better comment (though almost anything would be, and it confirmed that the first Tweet was his, rather than someone hacking his account, which would have been infinitely preferable) but we must also note that it was made only after we – and many others – replied in shock, and suggested alternatives.

We replied (amongst other things) to his first tweet as follows:

People leave their homes for all kinds of reasons, almost all of them good. You are now suggesting parents be jailed for trying to escape persecution and death, if their children die on vessels while doing so?

If you want to avoid deaths on journeys, rather than talking about 'death journeys' and blaming parents for their children's deaths, get serious. Demand governments open and operate safe routes using safe transport rather than forcing people into vessels incapable of making the journey.

We cannot know whether his second Tweet was a response to ours, and others like it, or whether he had a change of heart entirely of his own volition.

But as we have said on a number of occasions, the law is clear, and is consistently broken, in spirit and in fact. It is broken not by ‘smugglers’, and certainly not by people travelling, but by governments, and the politicians who make them up.

UNHCR must know, and must remember, that it is legal for people to travel, that governments are preventing this, and that if we are serious about people’s safety we must not punish those who travel, or those who grieve their lost children, but provide safe transport, on safe routes, to all who need it.

Cochetel’s first comment was unacceptable. Particularly from a person supposed to know about and work for the welfare of refugees. If his second reflects his genuine position, it is better. But we cannot continue to punish people for being harmed.


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