Hundreds risk return to Libya in bid to reach Europe by boat

The UN refugee agency says that among those crossing back into Libya are refugees, including Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans in a Tunisian camp.

An Italian coastguard vessel, carrying 142 people rescued at sea after fleeing Tripoli, prepares to dock at Lampedusa harbour. Anyone making the sea journey risks their life.  © UNHCR/F.Noy

GENEVA, May 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that hundreds of displaced people have been crossing back into Libya from Tunisia and Egypt with the intention of boarding boats to reach Europe.

"Among them are refugees, including members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the camps at Choucha near Tunisia's border with Libya," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

UNHCR is in discussions with these communities about the dangers involved in sailing the high seas as well as the risks people take in crossing the Libyan border. In March, UNHCR learnt from the Somali community in Choucha that two Somalis were shot dead in Libya after crossing back from Tunisia.

To date, around 14,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy and Malta from Libya. Of this number, 1,669 arrived on Friday and Saturday. Based on accounts from survivors and family members, more than 1,200 people who set out on boats are unaccounted for since March 25.

UNHCR has met with refugees in Tripoli who are planning to make the perilous sea journey. "They are all aware of the high death toll, but they told us that they feel they have nothing to lose. One Eritrean man told us he would rather die trying to reach safety than continue to live in danger," Fleming said.

Many have been living in Libya for several years; have faced periods of detention, and come from countries like Eritrea and Somalia where safe return is not a possibility.

Based on discussions with people who have arrived in Italy, UNHCR believes that thousands more will attempt to make this journey by sea. The majority have made the voyage in boats that are overcrowded and in poor condition. There is often no qualified skipper or crew to operate the boat.

"UNHCR repeats its call to all vessels on the Mediterranean to consider all boats departing Libya to be in need of assistance, and likely to face a situation of distress at some point in the journey," Fleming said.

The spokesperson also noted that UNHCR hoped to be able to re-establish an international presence in western Libya soon. "In the meantime our national staff and partners are running projects to assist refugees and asylum-seekers," she said.

"We plan to expand this assistance in order to alleviate the hardship faced by many refugees. Many have told us that basic survival is a struggle with the departure of the expatriate population and the collapse of the Libyan economy. "

UNHCR has teams of staff interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt and Tunisia to assess their claims and, where possible, refer them for resettlement.

But Fleming said that UNHCR had learnt with sadness "that people on track for resettlement, following interviews last year in Libya, lost their lives while trying to reach Europe recently. People in the middle of the resettlement process and vulnerable cases are prioritized in our interview schedule."

UNHCR estimates that 6,000 people will need resettlement from the borders of Egypt and Tunisia in the coming months, as well as 2,000 from Cairo. So far, 11 resettlement countries have offered more than 900 resettlement places. In addition the United States has offered a significant, but unspecified, number of resettlement places.

  • Italian coastguard vessels prepare to disembark boat people on a day when 1,271 people arrived in Lampedusa.
    Italian coastguard vessels prepare to disembark boat people on a day when 1,271 people arrived in Lampedusa. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • An Italian coastguard vessel prepares to dock in Lampedusa's port. It was carrying 142 people who had sailed from Tripoli, including 30 women and three children. They were rescued before their boat sank at sea.
    An Italian coastguard vessel prepares to dock in Lampedusa's port. It was carrying 142 people who had sailed from Tripoli, including 30 women and three children. They were rescued before their boat sank at sea.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • These people were among almost 500 people rescued from a skiff in the Mediterranean and taken by six Italian boats to Lampedusa.
    These people were among almost 500 people rescued from a skiff in the Mediterranean and taken by six Italian boats to Lampedusa.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A mother and child rescued at sea when their boat sank in the Mediterranean.
    A mother and child rescued at sea when their boat sank in the Mediterranean.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • An injured man from sub-Saharan Africa is helped off an Italian coastguard vessel after being picked up at sea. He had fled from Tripoli with others.
    An injured man from sub-Saharan Africa is helped off an Italian coastguard vessel after being picked up at sea. He had fled from Tripoli with others.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • People disembark at Lampedusa from an Italian police vessel. Aid workers escort the weakest to a reception hall for medical assessment.
    People disembark at Lampedusa from an Italian police vessel. Aid workers escort the weakest to a reception hall for medical assessment.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A newly arrived pregnant woman, too weak to walk, is taken to an ambulance. She was later examined at a medical centre in Lampedusa.
    A newly arrived pregnant woman, too weak to walk, is taken to an ambulance. She was later examined at a medical centre in Lampedusa.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A new arrival in Lampedusa receives a bottle of water from an Italian volunteer aid worker.
    A new arrival in Lampedusa receives a bottle of water from an Italian volunteer aid worker.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A bus transfers new arrivals from Lampedusa port to a reception centre, where they will stay for a day or two for identification verification.
    A bus transfers new arrivals from Lampedusa port to a reception centre, where they will stay for a day or two for identification verification. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A Nigerian man sits on a bed in Lampedusa's transit centre. He arrived by boat with his pregnant wife, who was rushed off to hospital in Sicily to give birth. He and his wife will be moved to temporary housing on the mainland while their asylum or protection requests are evaluated.
    A Nigerian man sits on a bed in Lampedusa's transit centre. He arrived by boat with his pregnant wife, who was rushed off to hospital in Sicily to give birth. He and his wife will be moved to temporary housing on the mainland while their asylum or protection requests are evaluated.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Nana, a 39-year-old Ivorian citizen, also had to wait in Lampedusa while his wife gave birth in Palermo. "My wife wanted to die [during the sea journey] because she was thirsty and pregnant," he said. "Now, thanks to God, she has delivered a boy in Sicily."
    Nana, a 39-year-old Ivorian citizen, also had to wait in Lampedusa while his wife gave birth in Palermo. "My wife wanted to die [during the sea journey] because she was thirsty and pregnant," he said. "Now, thanks to God, she has delivered a boy in Sicily."  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A bus is parked near a cruise ship docked at Lampedusa's port. The ship, manned by police, medical staff and civilian security, will take new arrivals to the Italian mainland, where their asylum or protection requests are evaluated.
    A bus is parked near a cruise ship docked at Lampedusa's port. The ship, manned by police, medical staff and civilian security, will take new arrivals to the Italian mainland, where their asylum or protection requests are evaluated.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Three people died on this boat, which ran aground on Lampedusa after the dangerous journey from Libya.
    Three people died on this boat, which ran aground on Lampedusa after the dangerous journey from Libya.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • A floating cemetery of smuggler's boats in Lampedusa. These rickety boats were used to transport people fleeing Libya for Italy. Many do not make it this far.
    A floating cemetery of smuggler's boats in Lampedusa. These rickety boats were used to transport people fleeing Libya for Italy. Many do not make it this far. © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • In Lampedusa cemetery, Italian police and naval personnel pay their respects at the funeral of three people killed when their boat ran aground on Lampedusa after the long journey from Libya.
    In Lampedusa cemetery, Italian police and naval personnel pay their respects at the funeral of three people killed when their boat ran aground on Lampedusa after the long journey from Libya.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
  • Graves of people who died trying to make the journey from Libya to Lampedusa. The identities of most are unknown because they did not carry papers.
    Graves of people who died trying to make the journey from Libya to Lampedusa. The identities of most are unknown because they did not carry papers.  © UNHCR/F.Noy
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