Sicilian trawler and UNHCR help in rescue of 27 Somalians

News Stories, 10 June 2008

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

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

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UNHCR country pages

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

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.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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

Somalia/Ethiopia

In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

Somalia/Ethiopia

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