Sicilian trawler and UNHCR help in rescue of 27 Somalians

Two Sicilian captains due to be honoured on World Refugee Day for saving people at sea were recently involved in the rescue of another 27 boat people.

A group of boat people arrive at Lampedusa Island after being towed by a fishing boat.   © Courtesy of ANSA/ Franco Lannino

ROME, Italy, June 10 (UNHCR) - Two Sicilian fishing boat captains due to be honoured on World Refugee Day next week for saving people at sea were recently involved in the rescue of another 27 boat people in the Mediterranean. But three people are reported missing after last Thursday's rescue operation, which also involved the UN refugee agency and the Italian navy.

Gaspare Marrone and his crew were fishing for tuna south of Italy's Lampedusa Island when they spotted a boat in distress carrying 30 Somalis. The Sicilians started bringing the boat people on board, but the Somalis' small vessel capsized and three people were unaccounted for.

Nicola Asaro, another Sicilian captain fishing in the area, called UNHCR's Senior Regional Public Information Officer Laura Boldrini by satellite phone and told her that Marrone and his crew were trying to mount a rescue operation but were having difficulties.

Boldrini passed the information - including the coordinates of Marrone's fishing boat - to the Italian coast guard and navy, who contacted the Sicilian captain and agreed to send help.

Marrone was able to detach his boat from the tuna pen that it was towing and rescue 27 people, including seven women, and then he sailed northwards and rendezvoused Thursday night with an Italian naval vessel, which took off the survivors. They were taken to Porto Empedocle in Sicily.

Asaro and Marrone are no strangers to selfless heroism at sea. They are due to be honoured at this year's joint UNHCR-Italian coast guard Per Mare Award ceremony, which will take place in Rome on World Refugee Day (June 20).

Marrone and his crew will be recognized for saving 54 boat people in November 2007, while Asaro and his crew are honoured for rescuing 14 people outside Italian waters in July last year. Asaro also rescued 50 people back in 2003.

The Per Mare Award was set up last year to try to counter the trend whereby boat people in distress in the Mediterranean are often ignored by commercial vessels, whose crews fear they may face investigations for aiding and abetting irregular migration. "So far, it appears to have been extremely successful, with fishing boat captains calling UNHCR to report rescue operations or to ask for help," said Walter Irvine, UNHCR's Rome-based regional representative.

Tens of thousands of people, including migrants and refugees, put out in small boats from the North African coast every year in a bid to reach European territory across the dangerous high seas.

Last year, a total of 19,900 people arrived in Italy's islands or the mainland by boat from North Africa, compared with 22,000 in 2006. At least 471 were reported dead or missing in 2007. Some 35 percent of those reaching Italy apply for asylum, with 22 percent being granted a form of protection.

By Giulia Laganà in Rome, Italy