UNHCR warns of further boat tragedy risk on Mediterranean

News Stories, 11 October 2013

© UNHCR/L.Boldrini
Over 30,000 migrants have made the journey to southern Italy by boat so far this year.

GENEVA, October 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has warned that without a collective and comprehensive response to last week's Lampedusa boat tragedy further disasters are inevitable.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva Friday, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the refugee agency welcomed the statements and actions this week by the European Commission and some European states on the need to prevent such tragedies in future. Among those highlighted by Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso earlier this week were the need for strengthened capacity for rescue at sea and better surveillance to track boats.

"All available means must be used to mitigate the root causes of flight in refugee producing countries," said Edwards. "More information needs to be made available about the hazards of irregular sea movements to Europe; there needs to be better gathering and sharing of information about the routes and means that people are taking in flight; and there needs to be improved rescue at sea detection and response." He also stressed the need for better care arrangements for new arrivals and for improved facilities in Lampedusa which suffers from serious overcrowding

In Lampedusa, 311 bodies have so far been recovered from the sea, though there is still no final figure for the total number of people who died in the disaster. Statements from the 156 survivors, said Edwards, suggest that that the bodies of between 50 and 70 people have yet to be found.

"The phenomenon of people travelling on small boats across the Mediterranean to Europe is age old and involves issues of asylum as well as migration," the UNHCR spokesman told reporters. "Those on board the boat that sank off Lampedusa last week were nearly all Eritrean, and many are likely to have been in need of international protection."

Among the survivors are people who had previously been at the Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan and the Mai Aini camp in northern Ethiopia. Anger over the Lampedusa deaths among the population in Mai Aini seems to have been a factor in disturbances there last weekend in which one person was killed, added Edwards.

The UNHCR spokesman said wider responsibility-sharing among European Union member states would help in the processing of asylum claims and in finding lasting solutions for people in need of international protection. It would also facilitate in providing assisted returns for those people determined not to be in need of protection.

"UNHCR stands ready with its NGO partners and IOM to help all States in working towards common solutions to the problems that lie behind last week's accident off Lampedusa," said Edwards.




UNHCR country pages

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: Survivors of the Sea Tragedy Play video

Italy: Survivors of the Sea Tragedy

The 28 survivors of what is expected to be the biggest migration sea tragedy in the Mediterranean finally landed ashore in Sicily, Italy. Earlier in the day the recovered bodies of those who lost their lives where taken to Malta earlier in the day. Around 800 people lost their lives in the tragedy, only 24 bodies were recovered.
Mediterranean Drownings: The High Commissioner's CommentsPlay video

Mediterranean Drownings: The High Commissioner's Comments

The High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed shock at news from the Mediterranean that hundreds of people were missing after their boat sank and called anew for urgent action to prevent such tragedies in the future. The latest incident involves the capsizing of a double-deck boat on Monday in waters about 120 kilometers south of Italy's Lampedusa Island.
Italy: Twin Brothers' OrdealPlay video

Italy: Twin Brothers' Ordeal

A new and large-scale boat tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea has UNHCR deeply concerned. The latest incident involves the capsizing of a double-deck boat on Monday in waters about 120 kilometres south of Italy's Lampedusa Island. So far, 142 people have been rescued and eight bodies recovered. But survivors said some 400 others were aboard and are feared lost. Those who survived such trauma, including Syrian twin brothers, feel lucky to be alive.