Fleeing is people's only way out, says UN refugee chief

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A boatload of people, some of them likely in need of international protection, are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian Navy. © UNHCR/A.D’Amato

"Excruciating": that's how the UN's top official for refugees Antonio Guterres described how he felt about the harrowing stories told by sea migrants.

High Commissioner Guterres made his remarks at a UN refugee agency event to find a solution to what he called "repeated tragedies" of people dying on the oceans.

Since the beginning of the year nearly 350,000 people have taken to the sea, Mr Guterres said; officially, more than 4,000 have died including hundreds of children.

The UN believes the real number is much higher.

Speaking in Geneva the UN Refugee Agency chief said that the nature of sea migration had changed.

It's no longer economics that's forcing people to flee, rather that they've lost everything and they are desperate, he said .

"For the first time in several decades, I believe the majority of the people on those boats are not economic migrants, but fleeing conflict and persecution and desperately looking for a place to live in peace. The growing number of women, children and elderly people is testimony to this fact…and just listening to the stories of these survivors is excruciating"

Mr Guterres called for governments to rethink their border control strategies, as well as the practice of returning refugees.

He also wants states to consider asylum claims made after migrants arrive in a new country.

Daniel Johnson, United Nations

Duration : 1’30″

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