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UNHCR worried about conditions for 2,000 boat people on Italian island

News Stories, 23 January 2009

© UNHCR/A.Di Loreto
Centre of Attention: Boat people at the centre on Lampedusa Island.

GENEVA, January 23 (UNHCR) The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed mounting concern on Friday about the conditions faced by nearly 2,000 boat people, including asylum seekers, crammed into one reception centre on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

The centre has a capacity for only 850 people and the result is that hundreds of people are now sleeping outdoors under plastic sheeting and adequate reception standards cannot be maintained.

The reception centre in Lampedusa was established to accommodate people rescued at sea while preparations were made for their transfer to special centres in southern Italy, which were set up to examine their situation and needs. Until now, this arrangement has been seen as a model for the responsible management of mixed migratory flows.

The practice has been to accommodate asylum seekers in open centres and have their asylum applications examined by the territorial refugee status determination commission. At the beginning of this year, the government made changes to this arrangement whereby all migrants and asylum seekers must remain in Lampedusa until a decision is made on their cases.

The overcrowding of the temporary reception centre on the small island is creating a humanitarian situation of concern which also complicates the work of UNHCR and other organizations active there under a project funded by the Ministry of the Interior and the European Commission. Local residents have protested against the increased number of people being held in the centre.

"During the past [few] years, UNHCR has been working closely with the Italian authorities to develop a better system of managing mixed flows of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Lampedusa by sea," said Pirkko Kourula, director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau. "We urge the Italian authorities to take all necessary steps to address the difficult humanitarian situation now unfolding in Lampedusa."

Available data shows that many boat arrivals in Lampedusa are persons originating from Somalia and Eritrea. According to preliminary figures for 2008, about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea last year applied for asylum, and around 50 percent of those who applied were granted refugee status or protection on other humanitarian grounds. The number of sea arrivals throughout Italy rose from 19,900 in 2007 to 36,000 last year.

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UNHCR country pages

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.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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

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: 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 has rescued more than 63,000 people.