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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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 Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

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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

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