Some 2,000 people flee from Tripoli by boat to Italy and Malta

News Stories, 29 March 2011

© UNHCR/P.Behan
An Italian police vessel carrying people who were rescued from their foundering boat after setting off from Tunisia earlier this month in hopes of reaching Europe.

GENEVA, March 29 (UNHCR) For the first time since conflict erupted in Libya in mid-February, hundreds of people have been fleeing by boat from Tripoli in recent days across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and Malta.

"Five boats have arrived in Italy since Saturday evening carrying 1,484 people. Two boats arrived in Malta yesterday with 535 passengers," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva on Tuesday. By midday, a third boat had arrived in Malta with 250 people.

"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," Fleming said.

Passengers from the first boat disembarked on the tiny island of Linosa, some 50 kilometres north-east of Italy's southernmost territory, Lampedusa Island. 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 in the open over the weekend before being transferred to reception facilities in Sicily.

Fleming said UNHCR was discussing contingency planning with the Italian and Maltese authorities and Red Cross, as there might be more arrivals from Libya. There were unconfirmed reports on Tuesday of a number of boats in distress on the Mediterranean carrying more people fleeing from Libya.

The reception capacity of Lampedusa is already overstretched following the arrival of thousands of Tunisians during the past few weeks. Some 19,000 Tunisians, mostly young men seeking employment in Europe, have arrived on Lampedusa since mid-January. While 13,000 have been transferred to reception centres in Sicily and mainland Italy, more than 6,000 Tunisian migrants remain, outnumbering the local population of some 5,000 people.

The continuing 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 frontline countries," Fleming said.

Meanwhile, people who were in eastern Libya at the weekend said they saw thousands of forcibly displaced families living in shelters constructed from blankets and dried sticks in the desert west and south of the town of Ajdabiya, which is now back under the control of anti-government forces..

Along the main road between Tobruk and Ajdabiya, they saw people staying in three settlements. The road was cut by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi until a few days ago, so supplies from Tobruk have been arriving only sporadically. In Tobruk, hundreds of people have been staying with host families.

People in one of the settlements between Tobruk and Ajdabiya said they were doing okay, but lacked latrines, fresh water, medicine and other vital supplies such as milk for babies. Residents from Tobruk have reportedly been bringing water and food in pickups and cars, but it is a long journey.

The visitors, who eventually made their way to Egypt, also came across several children who had been separated from their families when they fled from Ajdabiya after government troops attacked the town in mid-March.

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High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses the situation in Tunisia and UNHCR's response to the emergency.

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Mediterranean Tragedies Put Focus on Those in Peril on the Sea

April has proved to be the cruellest month this year for refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on smuggler's boats, many setting out from lawless Libya for southern Europe and others trying to reach Greece. The number of crossings has multiplied this month, but at least two boats have sunk off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving hundreds feared dead. Distress calls have been received from boats off Greece and Italy. In one case last week, the Italian Coastguard rescued a crowded and sinking dinghy carrying severely burned refugees, which were caused by an exploding gas canister at the shelter where they had been held by smugglers in Libya. The UN refugee agency has called on the European Union to restore a robust search-and-rescue operation for refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and for a comprehensive approach to address the root causes. To date this year, some 36,000 people have crossed Mediterranean waters to Italy and Greece, as war and violence intensify in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Mediterranean Tragedies Put Focus on Those in Peril on the Sea

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

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

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