UNHCR seeks better rescue mechanisms after Mediterranean drownings

News Stories, 10 May 2011

© AFP Photo/ Mauro Seminara
A group of people who fled Libya arrive on a boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa recently.

GENEVA, May 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday lamented the latest drowning deaths of people fleeing Libya by boat and reiterated a call for European nations to urgently improve mechanisms for rescue at sea.

"In addition, we appeal to ship masters for heightened vigilance and for continued adherence to the longstanding maritime obligation of aiding people in distress," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

Reporting on the latest news from the Mediterranean, Fleming said a boat carrying around 600 people had foundered not long after leaving the Libyan capital of Tripoli last Friday. "A senior Somali diplomat in Tripoli has reported that 16 bodies have been recovered, including two babies. But the full death toll is unknown to us," Fleming said, while adding that most of those onboard are believed to have been from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe has till now received less than 2 per cent of the people fleeing Libya to escape the continuing conflict in the North African country. But the number of people risking the boat journey across the Mediterranean to Europe rose at the weekend.

Fleming said that five boats carrying almost 2,400 people, including many women and children, had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday and Sunday. "All five boats needed rescuing by the Italian coastguard and maritime police, with one boat running aground close to the Lampedusa shore. Yesterday three bodies washed ashore, thought to have been passengers from the boat that ran aground," she said.

The number of people who have arrived in Italy and Malta from Libya since the crisis there started in mid-February now stands at 12,360, in a total of some 35 boats (11,230 to Italy and 1,130 to Malta). Prior to Friday's disaster, family members and survivors told UNHCR of boats running into problems, and as many as 800 people are unaccounted for.

Early last month, UNHCR first appealed to European states to urgently put in place more reliable and effective mechanisms for rescue at sea on the Mediterranean. "We reiterate that call today," Fleming said, while also making her call for ship captains to help those in peril on the high seas.

People fleeing Libya are often doing so in unseaworthy and overloaded vessels. "UNHCR urges states, commercial shipping companies and others present in the Mediterranean to consider that all boats leaving Libya for Europe are likely to require assistance," Fleming stressed.

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Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

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

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