UNHCR shocked by reports of hundreds missing in Mediterranean

News Stories, 31 March 2009

© UNHCR/L.Boldrini
A boat carrying African asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and Italy.

GENEVA, March 31 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency expressed shock and sorrow on Tuesday at reports that hundreds of people trying to reach Europe by sea were missing in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.

Details are still sketchy, but reports indicate a number of vessels carrying several hundred people set sail from the coast of Libya in the direction of Italy over the last few days. At least one boat reportedly went down and hundreds of people aboard are reported missing.

Egyptian authorities said the mishap occurred about 30 kilometres off the Libyan coast and that some Egyptian nationals were rescued. More than 20 bodies have reportedly been recovered to date. Authorities said those aboard included North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans.

This is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean. UNHCR's office in Rome reported two boats have arrived in Italy this week one carrying 244 people reached Sicily and another with 219 aboard made it to Lampedusa Island. Last year, more than 36,000 people arrived in Italy by sea from North Africa. Some 75 percent of them applied for asylum and about 50 percent of those received some form of international protection from the Italian authorities.

"This tragic incident illustrates, once again, the dangers faced by people caught in mixed irregular movements of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and elsewhere which every year cost thousands of lives," chief UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

High Commissioner António Guterres on Tuesday expressed his great sorrow at the tragic loss of life. He described the incident as the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life. Those on the move do so for a variety of reasons, including persecution, climate change and environmental degradation, which can in turn generate more poverty and conflict.

"We are seeing it all over the world," Guterres said. "In today's globalized world, money moves freely; goods tend to move more and more freely; but the obstacles to the movement of people are still in place and, to a certain extent, increasing.

"We have more and more people on the move and more and more barriers to their movement, creating a situation in which a large number of the people who cross international borders do so in an irregular way. And when people move in irregular ways, it becomes all the more difficult to distinguish between economic migrants and bona fide refugees or asylum seekers," he added.

The High Commissioner said the incident also underscored the need to increase international cooperation for rescue at sea and warned that the current global economic crisis would also lead to an increase in people going on the move.

By William Spindler in Geneva

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UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

An alarming number of people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Over a three-week period in late 2005, at least 150 people perished while making the journey. These deaths are frequently the result of overcrowded boats capsizing or breaking down and going adrift without food or water. Those who survive the voyage to Yemen often give brutal accounts of smugglers beating passengers or forcing them overboard while still far off shore – in some instances with their hands and feet bound.

In response, UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate Ethiopian and Somali refugees and migrants falling prey to ruthless smugglers in a bid to reach Yemen and beyond. The refugee agency has also been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Italy: Desperate Rescue at SeaPlay video

Italy: Desperate Rescue at Sea

Tens of thousands are fleeing from the North African coast, seeking safety in Europe via a dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings. Many are Syrian refugees, many others come from Sub-Saharan Africa - all risk their lives.
Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation had rescued more than 63,000 people at the time this video was published in July 2014.
Sweden: Mahmoud's EscapePlay video

Sweden: Mahmoud's Escape

Mahmoud was one of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have sought safety in Egypt since the conflict in his homeland began three years ago. The nine-year-old was so desperate to attend school that he risked his life to get to Europe. He was stopped and sent back to Egypt but is now making a fresh start in Sweden.