Mediterranean takes record as most deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants in 2011

Briefing Notes, 31 January 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Sybella Wilkes to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 31 January 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

According to UNHCR estimates, more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2011. This makes 2011 the deadliest year for this region since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006. The previous high was in 2007 when 630 people were reported dead or missing.

Last year is also a record in terms of the massive number of arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean, with more than 58,000 people arriving. The previous high was in 2008 when 54,000 people reached Greece, Italy and Malta. During 2009 and 2010, border control measures sharply reduced arrivals in Europe. The frequency of boat arrivals increased in early 2011 as the regimes in Tunisia and Libya collapsed.

Our teams in Greece, Italy, Libya and Malta, warn that the actual number of deaths at sea may be even higher. Our estimates are based on interviews with people who reached Europe on boats, telephone calls and e-mails from relatives, as well as reports from Libya and Tunisia from survivors whose boats either sank or were in distress in the early stages of the journey.

Survivors told UNHCR staff harrowing stories of being forced onboard by armed guards, particularly during April and May in Libya. The actual journey took place on unseaworthy vessels with refugee and migrant passengers often forced into having to skipper boats themselves. In addition, some survivors told UNHCR that fellow passengers beat and tortured them. Judicial investigations are ongoing in Italy following these reports.

The majority of last year's arrivals by sea landed in Italy (56,000, of whom 28,000 were Tunisian) while Malta and Greece received 1,574 and 1,030 respectively. The vast majority arrived in the first half of the year. Most were migrants, not asylum-seekers. Only three boats landed from mid-August to the end of the year. In addition, according to Greek government figures, some 55,000 irregular migrants crossed the Greek-Turkish land border at Evros.

We are disturbed that since the beginning of 2012, despite high seas and poor weather conditions, three boats have attempted this perilous journey from Libya, with one going missing at sea. This boat, carrying at least 55 people raised the alarm on 14 January, warning of engine failure. Libyan coast guards informed UNHCR that 15 dead bodies, all identified as Somali, were found washed up on the beaches last week, including 12 women, two men and a baby girl. On Sunday, three more bodies were recovered. It was confirmed later that all those that perished were Somali residents of the makeshift site in Tripoli known as the Railway Project.

The other two boats that made it to Malta and Italy in January required rescuing. The first rescue of 72 Somali nationals by the Italian coast guard took place on 13 January. Those rescued included a pregnant woman and 29 children.

The second boat was rescued by the Maltese Armed Forces on 15 January with the support of the US Navy and a commercial vessel. In total 68 people were rescued from a dinghy found drifting some 56 nautical miles from Malta. A baby girl was born on one of the rescue vessels. Another woman reported a miscarriage during the voyage.

UNHCR welcomes the ongoing efforts of the Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean. We renew our call to all shipmasters in the Mediterranean, one of the busiest stretches of water in the world, to remain vigilant and to carry out their duty of rescuing vessels in distress.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Rome: Laura Boldrini on mobile +39 33 55 403 194
  • In Valetta: Fabrizio Ellul on mobile +356 99 69 0081
  • In Geneva: Sybella Wilkes on mobile +41 79 557 91 38



UNHCR Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI)

EU solidarity for rescue-at-sea and protection of Asylum Seekers and Migrants.

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

Every year tens of thousands of people risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean on overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats in a bid to reach Europe. Many of them are fleeing violence and persecution and are in need of international protection. Thousands die every year trying to make it to places like Malta or Italy's tiny Lampedusa Island. It took the loss of some 600 people in boat sinkings last October to focus world attention on this humanitarian tragedy. Italy has since launched a rescue-at-sea operation using naval vessels, which have saved more than 10,000 people. Photographer Alfredo D'Amato, working with UNHCR, was on board the San Giusto, flagship of the Italian rescue flotilla, when rescued people were transferred to safety. His striking images follow.

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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

Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Serbia: Presevo Crossing from FYR MacedoniaPlay video

Serbia: Presevo Crossing from FYR Macedonia

On October 20, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece passed the half million mark. Their ultimate destination is northern Europe. The majority will take a route that goes from Greece, to FYR Macedonia and then onward through Serbia. At the border point of Presevo, Serbia they must go through a registration process before being allowed to continue their onward journey.