UNHCR and partners working to help manage Tunisian arrivals in Italy

Briefing Notes, 15 February 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 February 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR and its partners from the International Organization for Migration and Save the Children Fund are in Lampedusa and several locations in southern Italy working with local authorities to manage the recent influx of Tunisians. According to the Italian Government over 5,200 people have arrived since mid-January, with the vast majority (4,400) having arrived during the past few days. While most are young men we know of at least 20 women and over 200 minors, many unaccompanied.

Described by the Italian Government as a humanitarian emergency, we appreciate the sensitive approach that has been taken so far, with all actors recognizing that among this mixed group there may be some who need to apply for asylum. From discussions with new arrivals it is clear that while most are coming in search of employment, others are citing fear of violence and a breakdown of law and order in their home regions.

UNHCR is concerned that people smugglers in Tunisia are exploiting youth by promising them a better life in Europe. Although the journey is short, high seas and bad weather can make it perilous. Most of the new arrivals are in good health, but some have arrived soaked through, and suffering exhaustion. We have received unconfirmed reports that at least four people have drowned.

The large number of people arriving over such a short period has put a significant pressure on the small island of Lampedusa. A reception centre designed for 800 people is currently holding over 2,000. Following a number of flights to relieve congestion in Lampedusa, we understand that other reception centres in Italy are also reaching capacity. We appreciate all efforts being made by the Italian Government to provide shelter and assistance for the new arrivals and hope that a solution is found quickly to relieve the pressure on Lampedusa.

The Italian Government has clearly stated its commitment to providing access to asylum procedures for those who are seeking international protection. We welcome this commitment and urge solidarity with Italy as it faces this new chapter of mixed migration. UNHCR hopes that any mechanisms designed to control irregular migration will continue to ensure access to asylum for people in need of protection.

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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.

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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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Crush at the Tunisian border

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