UNHCR special envoy for the Western and Central Mediterranean situation Vincent Cochetel had to give an apology after making disparaging remarks about migrants and their families. Cochetel’s comments had ignited a major row on Twitter.
Vincent Cochetel was accused of using insensitive language in a tweet, in which he had criticized that the grieving mothers of migrants lost or perished in the Mediterranean Sea were the ones who in many instances had encouraged and financed their dangerous journeys in the first place.
The senior UNHCR official’s tweet came as response to a post by Maurice Stierl, a researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University in Germany. Stierl was attending a march in the Tunisian port city of Zarzis, where migrants lost in the Mediterranean en route to Europe were commemorated by the mothers of the missing. He posted a message of support, to which Cochetel issued a reply, to which some took umbrage.
"Like in Senegal, symbolically prosecuting parents for putting at risk their children could trigger serious attitudinal change on death journeys," Cochetel said on Twitter, with users coming out and accusing him of being thoughtless in his remarks.
Cochetel apologized for the remarks later, saying that upon reflection "on the strong reactions to my previous tweets, my comments were inappropriate."
"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.
"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," he added, while issuing a plea for safe and orderly pathways of migration to be established.
Calls for Cochetel's resignation
There were, however, also calls for Cochetel's resignation. The charity Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for migrants needing rescue at sea, said his comments were "cynical" and displayed "no understanding of the many complex reasons why people embark on dangerous journeys."
Cochetel has previously voiced many views in support of migrants and their plight -- such as calling for search and rescue missions to be stepped up, and for the fate of migrants stuck in Libya to play a bigger role in political negotiations.
Meanwhile, a UNHCR spokesperson said that the idea of prosecuting migrants' family members was not something that the agency could support, with the sole exception being "if they were involved in criminal or trafficking activities."
The spokesperson went on to say that "(w)e fully understand the reactions to the tweet," adding that the special envoy had apologized.
"We at UNHCR always stand in solidarity with all those impacted, including those who lost their children," the statement by the UNHCR spokesperson further said.
Nearly 25,000 confirmed as missing since 2014
This year alone, there are some 1,264 people dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the Missing Migrants Project -- an initiative launched by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), another UN body. Last year, that tally reached 2,048 people, who were recorded as dead or missing.
According to the Missing Migrants Project, there have been a total of 24,548 missing migrants recorded in the Mediterranean since the start of 2014, when the first signs of the so-called refugee crisis started to emerge.