UNHCR saddened at high seas accidents as Mediterranean claims more victims

News Stories, 13 May 2014

© UNHCR/A.D'Amato
Syrian refugees are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian navy. UNHCR is concerned about the number of vessels sinking in the attempt to reach Europe.

GENEVA, May 13 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it was deeply saddened at a rising death toll from boat accidents in the Mediterranean Sea this year as increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees make the journey on unseaworthy boats, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva that at least 17 people drowned after a boat sank on Monday in international waters, some 160 kilometres south of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and around 80 km north-west of Tripoli, Libya. The dead included 12 women, three children and two men.

Edwards added that two merchant ships from France and Vanuatu rescued 226 people who later received medical checks from Italian doctors. The French vessel, Bourbon Arcadia, rescued 158 people and the Kehoe Tide from Vanuatu rescued 68 people.

Yesterday's tragedy follows several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight in which 121 people are believed to have died in three separate boat accidents. The Libyan coast guard has rescued 134 people, the UNHCR spokesman said. The survivors receive medical assistance from UNHCR, the International Medical Corps and the Libyan coast guard. UNHCR also provides clothing, mattresses and other relief items.

"The other shipwrecks we know of, include one that took place off Libya around May 6 when a boat carrying 130 people capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast," Edwards said. Some of the 53 survivors told UNHCR that the smugglers set off even though the boat was damaged.

As of Monday, the coast guard had recovered 44 bodies believed to be from the same shipwreck, with a further 33 missing and believed dead. The people on board were from Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

On May 2, the Libyan coast guard rescued 80 people from Eritrean, Ethiopia and Somalia after their boat started leaking. Another four people drowned in the incident. Two days earlier, the Libyan coast guard found the wreckage of another boat off the coast of Tripoli. The sole survivor, in a critical condition, was treated at a government hospital; the remaining 40 passengers all from Somalia had drowned.

Shipwreck victims and survivors include people fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands and the risks they take on these sea journeys reflect the limited safe options available in Libya and other contexts. UNHCR has launched an information campaign in association with the Libyan coast guard, NGOs, UN partners and asylum-seekers to inform people of the risks involved with unscheduled voyages by sea.

"UNHCR welcomes the rescue operations by Italian and Libyan authorities and the cooperation of private vessels, without which the death toll would have been undoubtedly higher, but asks that search and rescue operations are further strengthened, especially in waters that have a high number of incidents," Edwards stressed.

"We also urge governments around the world to provide legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, ensuring desperate people in need of refuge can seek and find protection and asylum," he added. These alternatives could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and facilitated access to family reunification. Governments are also asked to resist punitive or deterrent measures such as detention for people seeking safety.

UNHCR estimates that more than 170 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe so far this year, including those who lost their lives off Greece, Libya and Italy and in international waters.

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Statistics

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Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

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Asylum-Seekers

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Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

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

The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

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Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

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