Angelina Jolie and UNHCR chief Guterres visit boat people on Italian island

News Stories, 19 June 2011

© UNHCR / J. Tanner
UNHCR chief António Guterres and Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie talk with asylum-seekers on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

LAMPEDUSA ISLAND, Italy, June 19 (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and UNHCR chief António Guterres met boat people, including unaccompanied minors, on a tiny Italian island on Sunday and remembered those who have lost their lives trying to reach Lampedusa by sea from Africa.

Jolie and Guterres visited the Porta d'Europa a stone gateway on a headland next to the sea where hundreds of boats have arrived with migrants from North Africa, including refugees and asylum-seekers. More than 40,000 people have risked the Mediterranean crossing on overcrowded boats and reached Lampedusa so far this year. A further 1,500 have died in the attempt.

Guterres appealed on European countries to accept the people coming from Africa, especially those fleeing violence in Libya. "When we have so many conflicts at the gates of Europe, the most important thing a country can do is keep their borders open," he stressed, while mentioning Italy by name.

The High Commissioner noted that about 18,000 people, including refugees, had reached Lampedusa by boat to date from Libya, while adding that this represented only 2 per cent of the people who had left Libya since conflict erupted there in February.

Jolie, who earlier in the day meet asylum-seekers at two locations in Malta, said she was moved to be at the Porta d'Europa. "It was very moving to stand with the mayor, the priest and the people of Lampedusa at this place, to take a moment of silence while a wreath was laid on a submerged boat on which three people had lost their lives.

"When I think of these people, these families, I try to imagine what would bring someone for example a mother with children to make this journey. What kind of a life she must have lived, what she must have suffered, to be brought to a point where her last resort is to step onto an overcrowded rickety boat," Jolie said.

"What must her life be like that the best alternative is to risk drowning and suffocation . . . only to be brought to a new country where she may be turned away. Sent back to sea," she said, adding: "Very few of us here today can even begin to understand what kind of painful existence she must have led."

The award-winning actress and Guterres also both thanked the Italian coastguard for saving many people who were on sinking boats. Jolie had earlier Friday in Valletta praised coastguards in Malta for having "saved thousands of lives over the years" and urged that they receive support from the international community to handle the inflow of migrants by sea.

The VIP visitors also saw reception facilities on Lampedusa and met with unaccompanied minors as well as some new arrivals. Italy has moved most of the boat people to the mainland, but some have been returned to Tunisia. Most of the arrivals have been economic migrants, especially from Tunisia, but some are people in need of international protection, including refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and Libya.

Guterres said it was important that arrivals be moved from the crowded conditions of Lampedusa as soon as possible. He also noted that among those coming to Italy, "there are some people who are becoming a refugee for the second time."

Meanwhile, he spoke against proposals that Italy revive a policy of pushing back to Africa boats carrying migrants. "My position is clear, it's not possible to send people back to a civil war situation."

Before joining High Commissioner Guterres in Lampedusa, Jolie had visited Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat. She visited Lyster Barracks, a former Royal Air Force facility and now a detention centre for asylum-seekers, many of whom have fled the violence in Libya. They include Somalis, Ethiopians and others from sub-Saharan Africa.

"Malta has saved many lives, but it is the daily conditions on the ground that are of most concern," Jolie said in Malta on Sunday morning. "We've spent time today speaking with the government and will spend more time talking about how, together, we can make the conditions more humane, especially for the children.

"We've spoken about our shared concerns about making sure asylum claims are processed as quickly as possible so no-one is sitting in a prison-like situation and waiting on a decision about their status," she added.

Many of the people Jolie met in the barracks told her that they had been working in Libya to make money to remit to their families back home. One man referred to Libya as the heart of Africa, where they were able to work. "Now it is on fire and Africa is crying," he said.

The people said they had never attempted to come to Europe before, they just wanted a place where they were safe and could work. "They are not asking to go to any particular country, they just want to find safety to work, and to have freedom," Jolie stressed.

The Goodwill Ambassador also visited an open centre near Malta's main airport where vulnerable asylum-seekers are living in tents inside an old aircraft hangar. The people she met there said living conditions were difficult.

By Ariane Rummery and Melissa Fleming
on Lampedusa Island, Italy




UNHCR country pages

Mediterranean Tragedies Put Focus on Those in Peril on the Sea

April has proved to be the cruellest month this year for refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on smuggler's boats, many setting out from lawless Libya for southern Europe and others trying to reach Greece. The number of crossings has multiplied this month, but at least two boats have sunk off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving hundreds feared dead. Distress calls have been received from boats off Greece and Italy. In one case last week, the Italian Coastguard rescued a crowded and sinking dinghy carrying severely burned refugees, which were caused by an exploding gas canister at the shelter where they had been held by smugglers in Libya. The UN refugee agency has called on the European Union to restore a robust search-and-rescue operation for refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and for a comprehensive approach to address the root causes. To date this year, some 36,000 people have crossed Mediterranean waters to Italy and Greece, as war and violence intensify in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Mediterranean Tragedies Put Focus on Those in Peril on the Sea

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

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Ali's father calls him 'Miracle Ali. The toddler's parents along with 40-days old Ali who suffers from Down's Syndrome were onboard an overcrowded fishing boat when it capsized less than 12 hours after departure from Libya to go to Italy. The tragedy left hundreds missing, now presumed dead. The survivors arrived in Italy thankful but shocked by their ordeal.