More than 1,500 drown or go missing trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2011

News Stories, 31 January 2012

Italian coastguard vessels arrive at Lampedusa Island after rescuing people on the Mediterranean.

GENEVA, January 31 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday released figures showing that more than 1,500 irregular migrants or refugees drowned or went missing last year while attempting crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.

"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," Senior Communications Officer Sybella Wilkes told journalists in Geneva, while adding that at least 18 people had drowned this year to date after setting off from Libya for Europe.

"Our teams in Greece, Italy, Libya and Malta, warn that the actual number of deaths at sea may be even higher," Wilkes said. "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," she explained.

Wilkes also revealed that a record 58,000 irregular migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees managed to make it to European shores last year after setting off in boats from Asia or North Africa. The previous high was in 2008, when 54,000 people reached Greece, Italy and Malta.

During 2009 and 2010, border control measures sharply reduced the number of arrivals in Europe. The frequency of boat arrivals increased in early 2011 as the governments in Tunisia and Libya collapsed.

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 majority arrived in the first half of the year and most were migrants, not asylum-seekers or refugees. Only three smuggler's boats arrived after mid-August.

UNHCR's Wilkes said that so far this year, "despite high seas and poor weather conditions," three boats had attempted the perilous journey from Libya and one of them carrying 55 people had gone missing.

"Libyan coastguards informed UNHCR that 15 dead bodies, all identified as Somali, were found washed up on the beaches [of Libya] last week, including 12 women, two men and a baby girl. On Sunday, three more bodies were recovered," Wilkes said. It was later confirmed that all those who drowned were Somali residents of the makeshift site in Tripoli known as the Railway Project.

The other two boats made it to Malta and Italy, but required rescuing. The Italian coastguard saved 72 Somalis, including a pregnant woman and 29 children, on January 13. The second boat was rescued two days later by the Maltese armed forces with the support of the US navy and a commercial vessel. In total 68 people were rescued from a drifting dinghy.

"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 . . . to remain vigilant and to carry out their duty of rescuing vessels in distress," Wilkes said.




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Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

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

Italy: Nightmare at seaPlay video

Italy: Nightmare at sea

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.
Italy: Maya's Song Play video

Italy: Maya's Song

Nawaf, his wife and children are used to the sea, they lived by it and Nawaf was a fisherman back in Syria. They never imagined they would be boarding a boat that was a one way passage out of Syria. Nawaf was on the run after brief time in detention were he was tortured. By the time he release, he was blind in one eye. Now safely in Europe the family is looking forward to restarting their life in Germany, to having their 6-year old daughter go to school for the first time.

Italy: Fashion Designer in MilanPlay video

Italy: Fashion Designer in Milan

Single mother Lamia had her own fashion workshop in Syria, she comes from a comfortable background but lost all her money in the war. Under the sound of gunfire she closed the workshop, took her two children and headed to Sudan in a lorry with dozens other people. She is now seeking asylum in Italy's fashion capital, Milan.