UNHCR helps boat people in Libya as search for survivors continues

News Stories, 1 April 2009

© UNHCR
Some of the rescued boat people at the special centre in Grabouli, 200 kilometres from Tripoli.

TRIPOLI, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, April 1 (UNHCR) UN refugee agency staff in Tripoli were on Wednesday helping hundreds of boat people rescued off the coast of Libya earlier this week as news reports said at least 100 people are believed to have drowned when another boat sank.

The Libyan coastguard rescued some 350 people, possibly including asylum seekers, after finding their boat adrift on Sunday in the Al Bouri oilfield, located about 30 kilometres off the coast of Libya. Those on board said they were trying to reach Europe.

Another boat that set sail for Europe from Libya at the weekend later sank in the Mediterranean. Libyan authorities were searching on Wednesday for survivors, after finding at least 100 bodies.

UNHCR and its partners, the International Organization for Peace, Care and Relief (IOPCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have sent two teams to provide humanitarian assistance to survivors from the boat towed back to Tripoli harbour on Tuesday.

The passengers, who are being held at special centres in the towns of Tripoli and Grabouli, said they had paid smugglers hundreds of dollars per person for passage to Italy's Lampedusa Island. They include Egyptians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Syrians and Tunisians.

One group of people from the same country said they had arrived in Tripoli two months earlier by air and waited for a chance to make the risky crossing. A group of Somalis said they entered Libya from Sudan and Chad after fleeing their conflict-torn country.

The UN refugee agency is providing the survivors with clothing, milk, water, and special items for children. Some of the survivors needed medical attention.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday expressed great sorrow at the loss of life. He described the incident as the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life.

This is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean. UNHCR's office in Rome reported two boats have arrived in Italy this week one carrying 244 people reached Sicily and another with 219 aboard made it to Lampedusa Island.

Last year, more than 36,000 people arrived in Italy by sea from North Africa. Some 75 percent of them applied for asylum and about 50 percent of those received some form of international protection from the Italian authorities. In Malta almost 100 percent of those who arrived via sea applied for asylum.

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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.

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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.

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An alarming number of people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Over a three-week period in late 2005, at least 150 people perished while making the journey. These deaths are frequently the result of overcrowded boats capsizing or breaking down and going adrift without food or water. Those who survive the voyage to Yemen often give brutal accounts of smugglers beating passengers or forcing them overboard while still far off shore – in some instances with their hands and feet bound.

In response, UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate Ethiopian and Somali refugees and migrants falling prey to ruthless smugglers in a bid to reach Yemen and beyond. The refugee agency has also been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

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

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UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

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