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Tunisians save hundreds as another Lampedusa-bound boat capsizes

Briefing Notes, 3 June 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 3 June 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

At least 150 people have drowned and scores remain missing following a boat capsizing off the Tunisian coast on Wednesday afternoon. This appears to be one of the worst and the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean so far this year.

The overcrowded boat carried an estimated 850 people mostly from West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It set sail on Saturday afternoon from the Libyan capital Tripoli and was headed for Lampedusa in Italy.

UNHCR's team in Tunisia spoke to some of the survivors who said that the boat was manned by people with little or no maritime experience. It ran into difficulties soon after departure and experienced problems with its steering and power. Effectively lost at sea, by the third day of the journey the passengers ran out of food and water.

The boat ultimately ran aground on Wednesday on a sandbank near the Kerkennah islands, some 300 km north-west of Tripoli. It capsized as desperate passengers rushed to one side, seeking rescue by the Tunisian coast guard and fishing boats that had approached the vessel. Many fell into the water. There are women and children among the 150 bodies recovered so far.

Seven people, including two pregnant women, are in intensive care in hospitals in Sfax on mainland Tunisia, about 40 km west of the Kerkennah islands. The rescue operation by the Tunisian navy and coast guard is still continuing.

Yesterday, 195 survivors were transferred to the IFRC camp near Ras Adjir close to Tunisia's border with Libya. Today, another 383 are scheduled to be transported to this and other nearby camps where they will receive counseling and other help.

Meanwhile, following last week's incidents near Ras Adjir in which two-thirds of the Choucha camp was destroyed, UNHCR has cleaned up the area and has reorganized the site in consultation with representatives of refugee and migrants' communities. As of yesterday, 168 new tents had been set up. More tents will be pitched in the coming days ito provide shelter for all camp residents. At present, Choucha camp hosts some 2,800 people who fled the fighting in Libya.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • On the Tunisian border: Firas Kayal on mobile +216 508 561 99

  • Andrej Mahecic (on mission) on mobile +41 79 200 7617

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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.

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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.

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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.

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