UNHCR helps Italy cope with high seas influx of thousands of Tunisians

News Stories, 15 February 2011

© Ciro Fusco/ANSA
Newly arrived Tunisians wait on a pier in Lampedusa to be transported to a reception centre.

GENEVA, February 15 (UNHCR) Staff from the UN refugee agency are working with the Italian government and other partners to manage a dramatic influx of several thousand Tunisians who have crossed to Italy's Lampedusa Island and the mainland by boat over the past month.

The Italians say more than 5,200 Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean to their territory since mid-January, with the vast majority (4,400) having arrived during the past few days. While most are young men, UNHCR knows of at least 20 women and more than 200 minors, many unaccompanied.

UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and Save the Children Fund are in Lampedusa and several locations in southern Italy working with local authorities to cope with what the government is describing 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," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

"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," she stressed.

The UN refugee agency 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. UNHCR has 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 Lampedusa, which lies midway between the Tunisian coast and Sicily. A reception centre on the island designed for 800 people is currently holding more than 2,000.

"Following a number of flights to relieve congestion in Lampedusa, we understand that other reception centres in Italy are also reaching capacity," UNHCR's Fleming said, before adding: "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 stated its commitment to providing access to asylum procedures for those who are seeking international protection. The refugee agency said it welcomed this commitment and urged solidarity with Italy. UNHCR hopes that 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.

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

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

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

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.