UNHCR calls for action to alleviate humanitarian situation on Lampedusa

Briefing Notes, 22 March 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 22 March 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is calling for urgent action by the Italian authorities to alleviate overcrowding on the island of Lampedusa. The humanitarian situation for the 5,000 mostly Tunisian migrants on this remote Italian island is deteriorating.

With the ratio of migrants to local population now one-to-one, the congestion is raising tensions within the local population and among the migrants. The local population is experiencing the present situation with understandable nervousness. We urge the Italian authorities to increase the number of transfers from the island to the mainland to relieve congestion on Lampedusa, and to allow the reception center there to function normally.

The local reception centre, designed to accommodate 850 people, at present hosts some 2,000. Another 3,000 people are forced to sleep in the rough close to the centre and on the docks. Despite valiant efforts of the local humanitarian workers, many people are unable to find shelter from rain and cold weather. Hygiene conditions are dire.

The vast majority of migrants on Lampedusa have departed from Tunisia driven by economic hardship. Only a few express the intention to seek international protection. Most are looking for employment opportunities.

Considering the fast pace of events unfolding in northern Africa, UNHCR urges EU solidarity with Italy as it faces this new challenge. It is crucial that the situation on Lampedusa not impede Italian preparedness for arrivals of persons fleeing the situation in Libya, as such persons would be likely to have international protection needs. In this context, UNHCR trusts that any mechanisms designed to control irregular migration will ensure access to the territory for people in need of protection.

More than 15,000 Tunisian migrants have arrived on Lampedusa since mid-January. Around two-thirds have meanwhile been transferred to other locations in Italy.

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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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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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Italy: Desperate Rescue at SeaPlay video

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