Rescue efforts focus on survivors of Lampedusa boat tragedy as search suspended

News Stories, 4 October 2013

© UNHCR/B.Molinario
Survivors of Thursday's boat tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa shelter in an area of the tiny island's port. UNHCR is sending more staff to the island today to meet and help the survivors.

ROME, Italy, October 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday reported that rescue efforts on southern Italy's Lampedusa Island are now focused on helping people who survived the sinking a day earlier of the flimsy boat on which they were trying to reach Europe from North Africa.

"A colleague in Lampedusa, who we spoke to an hour ago, is reporting 155 survivors, all but one of whom is Eritrean the other is Tunisian," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said on Friday morning.

The UNHCR staff member in Lampedusa also reported that the search operation had been called off because of rough seas. Some 111 bodies have been recovered so far, but with a reported 500 people on board and the boat on which they were travelling having now sunk, it is feared that many bodies remain trapped in the wreckage on the sea floor.

Fleming said that among the survivors were 40 unaccompanied boys aged between 14 and 17, and six women. "They are exhausted and in a state of shock," she said, adding: "Others are still missing, presumed trapped inside the boat. Those who died presumably either could not swim or were trapped in the boat's crammed lower deck."

The survivors are currently being sheltered in a reception centre, already overcrowded and holding some 1,000 people from other recent boat arrivals. UNHCR was discussing on Friday with the Italian authorities details of when people might be moved on to better facilities.

"UNHCR will be meeting the survivors of this latest accident today, and they will be provided with advice on asylum procedures. We have additional staff arriving from Rome this morning, and a Red Cross psychologist will be providing counselling," Fleming said.

According to the survivors, the boat they were on left from Libya 13 days ago carrying 500 people. Most came aboard at Misrata, but others joined them further west in Zuwara. As they approached the Italian coast early Thursday, the boat's engine stopped.

They had been hoping to be seen and rescued, but fishing boats reportedly passed without helping. They then set clothing and blankets on fire to attract attention. The vessel was finally spotted by a tourist boat which sounded the alert. The Italian coastguard came to their rescue.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres commented today: "There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call. More effective international cooperation is required including a crack-down on traffickers and smugglers while protecting their victims. It shows how important it is for refugees to have legal channels to access territories where they can find protection."

Later Friday, in closing remarks to the annual meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee, he reiterated this message and also mourned the lack of mechanisms to avert this kind of tragedy. "What really makes me feel deeply frustrated is the fact that we have no real instruments that allow those who are in need of protection to find ways to access territories where that protection can be granted to them without having to use, in many circumstances, the channels of smuggling, of trafficking, of submitting themselves to terrible violations of human rights."

He called on states "to come together . . . to find ways to be able to effectively crack down on smugglers and traffickers and other criminals that do those horrible things we are witnessing. But also to find the ways to protect victims and to allow everybody to have access to where protection can be granted without having to risk their lives and to suffer such brutal violations of their human rights."

Map of the boat tragedy place
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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

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.