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's Libya Appeal

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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.

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Libya endured severe upheaval in 2011 and the next government faces major challenges moving the country forward after four decades of Muammar Gaddafi's rigid rule. One task will be addressing and resolving the issue of tens of thousands of internally displaced people. Some are waiting for their homes to be repaired or rebuilt, but many more have been forced to desert their towns and villages because of their perceived support for Gaddafi and alleged crimes committed during the conflict. Meanwhile, growing numbers of people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, are coming to Libya from sub-Saharan Africa on well travelled mixed migration routes. Some are being detained as illegal immigrants, though many are people of concern. Others have risked the dangerous sea crossing to southern Europe.

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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

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