UNHCR deeply concerned over returns from Italy to Libya

Press Releases, 7 May 2009

Thursday, 7 May 2009

GENEVA UNHCR expressed deep concern Thursday over the fate of some 230 people who were rescued Wednesday by Italian patrol boats in the Maltese Search and Rescue Region (SAR) of responsibility and sent back to Libya without proper assessment of their possible protection needs. The rescue took place about 35 nautical miles south-east of the Italian island of Lampedusa, but within the Maltese SAR zone.

The diversion to Libya followed a day of heated discussions between Maltese and Italian authorities about who was responsible for the rescue and disembarkation of the people on the three boats, which were in distress. Although closer to Lampedusa, the vessels were in the Maltese search and rescue area of responsibility.

While no information is available on the nationalities of those aboard the vessels, it is likely that among them are people in need of international protection. In 2008, an estimated 75 percent of sea arrivals in Italy applied for asylum and 50 percent of them were granted some form of protection.

"I appeal to the Italian and Maltese authorities to continue to ensure that people rescued at sea and in need of international protection receive full access to territory and asylum procedures," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said.

The incident marks a significant shift in policies by the Italian government and is a source of very serious concern. UNHCR deeply regrets the lack of transparency which surrounded the event.

"We have been working closely with the Italian authorities in Lampedusa and elsewhere to ensure that people fleeing war and persecution are protected in line with the 1951 Geneva Convention," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's Rome-based representative. "It is of fundamental importance that the international principle of non-refoulement continues to be fully respected."

In addition, Libya has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and does not have a functioning national asylum system. UNHCR urges Italian authorities to reconsider their decision and to avoid repeating such measures.

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

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.

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

Sweden: Mahmoud's EscapePlay video

Sweden: Mahmoud's Escape

Mahmoud was one of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have sought safety in Egypt since the conflict in his homeland began three years ago. The nine-year-old was so desperate to attend school that he risked his life to get to Europe. He was stopped and sent back to Egypt but is now making a fresh start in Sweden.
Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.