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.

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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: Desperate Rescue at SeaPlay video

Italy: Desperate Rescue at Sea

Tens of thousands are fleeing from the North African coast, seeking safety in Europe via a dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings. Many are Syrian refugees, many others come from Sub-Saharan Africa - all risk their lives.
Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation had rescued more than 63,000 people at the time this video was published in July 2014.
Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation had rescued more than 63,000 people at the time this video was published in July 2014.