Libya: Thousands flee to Tunisia; new boats reach Italy

Briefing Notes, 3 May 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 3 May 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The exodus from Libya's Western Mountains region into Tunisia has resumed after a brief interruption last week caused by skirmishes between Libyan government and opposition forces. This past weekend, more than 8,000 people, most of them ethnic Berbers, arrived in Dehiba in southern Tunisia. Most are women and children.

Their situation is being made worse by a violent sandstorm that has battered the area. UNHCR and our partners are struggling to maintain nearby camps. The storm has destroyed hundreds of tents and two huge portable warehouses.

Control of the Dehiba border crossing has changed hands over the past week as fighting between Libyan government and opposition forces spread onto Tunisian territory. Currently, the crossing is under opposition control. Residents of Dehiba town say they are worried about military activity across the border and fear further skirmishes. UNHCR will give tents to the local authorities should they need to relocate some families away from the border.

Most of the Libyan refugees are leaving Libya in tribal groups. Many are choosing to stay in the camps for a few days before moving on to stay with Tunisian families. UNHCR, and partners including the World Food Programme and other agencies are planning to distribute food and other aid to the refugees and their host families.

Meanwhile, more people have been fleeing Libya by sea to Italy, after a 10-day break due to bad weather. Some 3,200 people have arrived on Lampedusa over the past five days, most of them originating from sub-Saharan Africa. This brings to over 8,100 the total number of arrivals in Italy from Libya since March 26. Another 1,132 people have arrived in Malta on boats from Libya in mid-April.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • On the Tunisian border: Rocco Nuri on mobile +216 55968515
  • In Rome: Laura Boldrini on mobile +39 33 55 403 194
  • Federico Fossi on mobile +39 349 084 3461
  • In Geneva: Sybella Wilkes on mobile +41 79 557 91 38



UNHCR country pages

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

Italy: Nightmare at seaPlay video

Italy: Nightmare at sea

Ali's father calls him 'Miracle Ali. The toddler's parents along with 40-days old Ali who suffers from Down's Syndrome were onboard an overcrowded fishing boat when it capsized less than 12 hours after departure from Libya to go to Italy. The tragedy left hundreds missing, now presumed dead. The survivors arrived in Italy thankful but shocked by their ordeal.
Italy: Maya's Song Play video

Italy: Maya's Song

Nawaf, his wife and children are used to the sea, they lived by it and Nawaf was a fisherman back in Syria. They never imagined they would be boarding a boat that was a one way passage out of Syria. Nawaf was on the run after brief time in detention were he was tortured. By the time he release, he was blind in one eye. Now safely in Europe the family is looking forward to restarting their life in Germany, to having their 6-year old daughter go to school for the first time.

Italy: Fashion Designer in MilanPlay video

Italy: Fashion Designer in Milan

Single mother Lamia had her own fashion workshop in Syria, she comes from a comfortable background but lost all her money in the war. Under the sound of gunfire she closed the workshop, took her two children and headed to Sudan in a lorry with dozens other people. She is now seeking asylum in Italy's fashion capital, Milan.