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
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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

Displacement Challenges for Libya

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.

Displacement Challenges for Libya

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

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.