Boat carrying 600 sinks off Tripoli, five boats rescued by Italian coastguard

Briefing Notes, 10 May 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 10 May 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Early last Friday, a boat carrying people fleeing Libya broke up shortly after departing Tripoli. Relatives of those onboard say the vessel was carrying around 600 people. A senior Somali diplomat in Tripoli has reported that sixteen bodies have been recovered, including two babies. But the full death toll is unknown to us. Most of those onboard are believed to have been from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe has till now received less than two percent of those fleeing Libya. This past weekend saw an increase in arrivals across the Mediterranean: Five boats arrived on Lampedusa, carrying close to 2,400 people. Most are sub-Saharan Africans, many of them women and children. All five boats needed rescuing by the Italian coastguard and maritime police, with one boat running aground close to the Lampedusa shore. Yesterday three bodies washed ashore, thought to have been passengers from the boat that ran aground.

The number of people who have arrived in Italy and Malta from Libya now stands at 12,360, in a total of some 35 boats (11,230 to Italy and 1,130 to Malta). Prior to Friday's disaster, family members and survivors told UNHCR of boats running into problems, and as many as 800 people are unaccounted for.

On 8 April UNHCR appealed to European states to urgently put in place more reliable and effective mechanisms for rescue at sea on the Mediterranean. We reiterate that call today. In addition, we appeal to ship masters for heightened vigilance and for continued adherence to the longstanding maritime obligation of aiding people in distress. People fleeing Libya are often doing so in un-seaworthy and overloaded vessels. UNHCR urges states, commercial shipping companies and others present in the Mediterranean to consider that all boats leaving Libya for Europe are likely to require assistance.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • 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
• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

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: Ezadeen Cargo Ship ArrivalPlay video

Italy: Ezadeen Cargo Ship Arrival

On January 3, the Ezadeen, a cargo ship, was found adrift in the Mediterranean and taken to Italy. It had been abandoned by its crew, with 350 refugees and others on board. Most were fleeing the war in Syria. Now, far from home, they must face many new challenges.
Italy: Desperate Rescue at SeaPlay video

Italy: Desperate Rescue at Sea

Tens of thousands are fleeing from the North African coast, seeking safety in Europe via a dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings. Many are Syrian refugees, many others come from Sub-Saharan Africa - all risk their lives.
Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation had rescued more than 63,000 people at the time this video was published in July 2014.