UNHCR official accused of ‘victim blaming’ the mothers of missing refugees in the Mediterranean

ACTIVISTS accused a United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) official of “victim blaming” today after he took to social media to criticise the mothers of missing migrants and refugees.

In Tunisia today, human rights activists and civil society organisations took part in a commemorative protest, or “CommemorAction,” with relatives of the thousands of people that have gone missing or died in the Mediterranean Sea and at the edges of fortress Europe.

The CommemorAction, held today in the southeastern town of Zarzis, also marks 10 years since 130 people set sail from Sfax and shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. Only 56 of them were rescued.

In the morning, Maurice Stierl, a researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabruck University, shared a photograph of the protest and wrote: “The mothers of the disappeared lead the way, followed by the fishermen of Zarzis and activist supporters from around the world. CommemorAction.”

Then around midday, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel quote tweeted Mr Stierl’s post, and wrote the following: “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.”

Mr Cochetel’s quote tweet drew in a lot of criticism from activists, human rights organisations and others.

“Why do I doubt the sincerity of this expressed grief?,” Mr Stierl said in response. “Probably because of the rest of the tweet. Simply astonishing words from a UNHCR spokesperson.”

Borderline Europe, a organisation that monitors human rights abuses along Europe’s borders, said: “That’s where we at: UN Special Envoy for refugees mocks the grief of parents who lost their children at Europe’s deadly borders and on top of that calls for ‘symbolic prosecutions’ for them.

“This is how the rich global north deals with thousands of deaths at its doors.”

The Mediterranean rescue ship organisation Sea-Watch said Mr Cochetel’s statement was “victim blaming at its finest.”

“UNHCR is showing its true face. Their mandate is to protect people who are forced to flee but what they do is blame those affected by the deadly border regime.

“We stand in full solidarity with the families of the dead and disappeared!”

Aegean Boat Report, a human rights monitoring group based in Greece, said: “This is just wrong in so many ways. I’m not sure if it’s just incompetence or plain stupidity.

“A UNHCR Special Envoy, showing no respect whatsoever for human lives or people he is supposed to represent. Is this where we are at? Deeply shocking.”

Mr Cochetel took to Twitter later this evening, adding: “I am not blaming the people leaving if they are persecuted (which may not be the case for most Tunisians), but those funding these death journeys or encouraging them.

“And I am sorry for the loss of life at sea and along mixed movements routes.”

Meanwhile, the Geo Barents rescue ship remains at sea with 267 shipwreck survivors on board, seven days after it first requested a port of safety from the European authorities.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the international medical charity that runs the ship, said the survivors are also dealing with fuel burns, skin infections, amputation, spinal surgery, asthma, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and more.

“Some of the 267 survivors are struggling to move around the ship due to historical injuries and chronic medical conditions,” MSF said on social media today.

“After experiencing near death, this unnecessary wait also exacerbates emotional and mental distress. This situation needs to stop.”

The Sea-Eye 4 rescue ship is currently carrying 76 people who were rescued in a joint operation with the Nadir, a smaller boat operated by ResQship, on Friday.

Due to a medical emergency, one of the 76 had to be airlifted from the ship today.

“The man suffered from severe abdominal pain and had a fever.” Sea-Eye said. “We are glad that he is now being helped on land!”


Update: September 7, 2022

Mr Cochetel issued an apology this morning for yesterday’s tweet.

“Reflecting on the strong reactions to my previous tweets, my comments were inappropriate,” he said.

“I am sorry especially to the mothers who have lost their children. My frustration at seeing so many lives lost and the impunity the smugglers enjoy, does not justify my words.”

Mr Stierl, whose tweet the UNHCR official quoted when he made his controversial remark yesterday, said we are all frustrated.

“But why not direct this frustration to those who produce the need for smuggling in the first place?,” he said.

“Why not at Malta and Greece that just let a four-year-old knowingly die yesterday? It is really so beyond me.”

MSF said Mr Cochetel’s original tweet was “inexcusable and outrageous.”

It said his remarks “show contempt and ignorance of the fate of people forced to flee their country at the risk of their lives.

“UNHCR is this the vision you have of your refugee protection mandate?”


Top image shows relatives of the disappeared protesting against the violence of the European borders in Zarzis, Tunisia [Pic: Alarm Phone]

Published by Ben Cowles

Is a journalist and podcaster

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