Growing numbers of Syrians arriving in southern Italy

News Stories, 13 September 2013

© UNHCR/F.Noy
A customs boat enters a port in southern Italy after searching for boats carrying people hoping to reach Europe. More and more Syrians are taking sea routes to the continent.

GENEVA, September 13 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said Friday that the number of Syrians risking dangerous and irregular boat trips to reach southern Italy has risen sharply in recent weeks.

"Over the past 40 days, [some] 3,300 Syrians, of whom more than 230 were unaccompanied children, have come ashore mainly in Sicily. Some 670 of these arrivals were during the past week," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

He said that more than 30 boatloads of people have been involved. The majority have come from Egypt, although some started their journeys from Turkey. "Most of the arrivals have been families with children," he said, adding that "several people have needed hospital treatment for dehydration, and there have been instances of people having to be airlifted directly from the boat they were travelling on."

The spokesman said that a nurse from Damascus died as she crossed last week with her husband and children. Her husband gave permission for her liver and kidneys to be used for three patients in Italy seeking organ transplants.

UNHCR estimates that more than 4,600 Syrians have arrived in Italy by sea since the beginning of 2013. About two thirds of these arrivals have been in August.

Edwards said that most of the Syrians that UNHCR had spoken to said they came from Damascus, with many being Palestinian refugees born in Syria. On arrival, people are taken to reception centres. In recent months many Syrians have moved on from countries at the European Union's external borders to other parts of Europe.

According to the latest UNHCR figures, almost 21,900 people have arrived so far in southern Italy this year. This is a significant increase on levels in 2012, when a total 7,981 people arrived. The main nationalities have been Eritreans 5,778 (594 in 2012), Somalis 2,571 (1,280 in 2012) and now Syrians 3,970 (369 in 2012).

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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

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

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

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