Boat arrivals on Lampedusa

Briefing Notes, 15 March 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 March 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In the last 24 hours, 22 boats carrying over 1,600 persons, nearly all young Tunisian males, have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. This brings the total number of Tunisians having arrived in Italy since mid-January to just over 10,000. It seems that departures are taking place from various locations along the Tunisian coastline. UNHCR staff are present on Lampedusa and are trying to help the Italian authorities deal with this situation.

The outflow from Tunisia is unrelated to the ongoing crisis in Libya. From our interactions with Tunisians arriving in Italy over past weeks, we believe that most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities, rather than international protection.

UN staff and partners in Tunisia report that some villages appear largely empty of their young male population, with only women, children and elderly people remaining. This type of outflow is not atypical of countries in transition, and we are well aware of the many demands on the Tunisian authorities at present. Solutions to this type of flow need to be found in dialogue between the concerned governments, including arrangements for the orderly and dignified return of persons who are found not to be in need of international protection, and the establishment of opportunities for labor migration which can meet the needs of countries on both sides of the Mediterranean.

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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

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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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At the Tunisia-Libya border, a heaving crush of thousands of people anxious to leave the insecurity of Libya gathered in no-man's land and on the Libyan side of the border on 2 March, 2011. Most were young men, principally migrant workers from Tunisia and Egypt. They were desperate to go home or find shelter and safety in Tunisia. After several nights sleeping out in the open, many were exhausted and hungry. As the crowd surged towards the border gate, several people were injured. The Tunisian Red Crescent is on hand to provide medical support for all those in need. UNHCR officials were also waiting on the Tunisian side of the border, supporting the Tunisian authorities and aid organizations.

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