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

News Stories, 31 January 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
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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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

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Beyond the Border

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency's Nansen Awards Committee has named Dr. Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, as the winner of the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award. The Committee was impressed by the political and civic courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Dr. Camilleri first became aware of the plight of refugees as a 16-year-old girl when a priest visited her school to talk about his work. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994, she began working in a small law firm where she came into contact with refugees. As Dr. Camilleri's interest grew in this humanitarian field, she started to work with the JRS office in Malta in 1997.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Dr. Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family. The perpetrators were never caught but the attacks shocked Maltese society and drew condemnation from the Government of Malta. Dr. Camilleri continues to lead the JRS Malta legal team as Assistant Director.

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

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Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

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