Italy, Malta receive first boats from Libya, stretching asylum capacity

Briefing Notes, 29 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 29 March 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In the last four days, we have seen the first boat arrivals into Europe directly from Libya since the outbreak of conflict there. Over 2,000 non-Libyans have fled Tripoli by boat to Italy and Malta, stretching reception capacities for people possibly in need of protection.

Five boats have arrived in Italy since Saturday evening carrying 1,484 people. Two boats arrived in Malta yesterday with 535 passengers. Most of them are Eritreans and Somalis, with many women and children among them, but there are also Ethiopians, Sudanese and a number of other nationalities. To date Libyans do not appear to be among those arriving in either country.

Passengers from the first boat disembarked on the tiny island of Linosa, some 50 km north-east of Lampedusa. Two other boats arrived in Italy on Sunday and were also disembarked on Linosa before being transferred by ferry to Sicily. Two further boats arrived early this morning, one in Sicily and the other in Lampedusa.

A woman gave birth at sea while awaiting rescue, while two others suffered miscarriages during the ordeal at sea or after landing in Linosa. Most of the new arrivals slept outside over the weekend before being transferred to reception facilities in Sicily.

UNHCR is discussing contingency planning with the Italian and Maltese authorities and Red Cross, as there are indications that more arrivals from Libya can be expected. As of this morning there were unconfirmed reports of a number of boats in distress on the Mediterranean carrying more people fleeing from Libya.

The reception capacity of the larger Italian island of Lampedusa is already over-stretched following the arrival of thousands of Tunisians over the past weeks. Since mid-January 19,000 Tunisians, mostly young men seeking employment, have arrived on Lampedusa. While 13,000 have been transferred to reception centres in Sicily and mainland Italy, over 6,000 Tunisian migrants remain, outnumbering the local population of some 5,000 people.

The ongoing flow of Tunisians, most of whom are not seeking international protection, puts a particular strain on Italy's ability to respond to the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing the violence in Libya. UNHCR appeals to the European Union institutions and Member States to support Italy to deal with these new challenges.

UNHCR is grateful to Italy and Malta for their reception of the new arrivals from Libya and urges other European Union countries to demonstrate solidarity with these front line countries.

Futher information for journalists on arrivals in Libya's neighbouring states:

On 27 March, Egyptian immigration authorities processed 2,055 people entering the Egyptian border of Salloum from Libya including 367 Egyptians, 1,154 Libyans, 184 Nigerians, 121 Chadians, 88 Sudanese and 46 Syrians. On the same day, Tunisian authorities at the Ras Adjir border reported that 906 people crossed the border from Libya including 207 Egyptians, 206 Bangladeshis, 136 Chadians and 134 Eritreans.

In addition to the arrivals in Italy and Malta, as of 27 March 381,888 people have fled the violence in Libya. This includes over 193,783 to Tunisia (including 19,541 Tunisian, 23,184 Libyans and 145,476 others), 156,471 to Egypt (including 79,020 Egyptians, 32,679 Libyans and 44,772 others), 15,647 to Niger (including 14,698 Nigerien and 949 others), 9,987 to Algeria (including land, air and sea evacuations), 3,200 to Chad and 2,800 to Sudan.

For media queries on this topic, please contact:
In Geneva Sybella Wilkes on mobile +41 79 557 91 38
In Rome, Federico Fossi on office no. +39 06 802 123 18
In Valetta, Fabrizio Ellul on mobile +356 99 69 0081

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Earlier this month, within sight of shore after a long journey from Libya, a boat carrying hundreds of people foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 300 people, many of them children, drowned and only 156 people were picked out of the water alive. The tragedy was staggering for its heavy death toll, but it is unlikely to prevent people from making the dangerous and irregular journey by sea to try and reach Europe. Many seek a better life in Europe, but others are escaping persecution in countries like Eritrea and Somalia. And it's not just happening on the Mediterranean. Desperate people fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution are risking their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden from Africa; Rohingya from Myanmar are heading into the Bay of Bengal on flimsy boats in search of a safe haven; people of several nationalities try to reach Australia by boat; others cross the Caribbean. And many remember the Vietnamese boat people exodus of the 1970s and 1980s. As then, governments need to work together to reduce the risk to life. These photos, from UNHCR's archives, capture the plight of boat people around the world.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

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.
Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.