Fresh account from survivor of boat fleeing Libya

Briefing Notes, 13 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 13 May 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday morning UNHCR staff met with three Oromo Ethiopian men who told us they were among only nine survivors from a boat carrying 72 people that set out from Tripoli on 25 March.

One of them told UNHCR staff that their 12 metre boat destined for Europe was packed to a point that there was barely standing room. The boat ran out of fuel, water and food and drifted for more than two weeks before reaching a beach in Libya.

The refugee said that military vessels twice passed their boat without stopping, and that a military helicopter dropped food and water onto the boat at some point during the journey. The first boat refused their request to board. The second only took photos, he said. The man was not able to identify where the vessels came from.

UNHCR staff met with the three in Shousha camp in Tunisia. One spoke Arabic, while the others spoke Oromo. UNHCR interviewed the Arabic speaker. He said that they paid smugglers US$800 to make the journey. The passengers were expected to operate the boat on their own.

According to the refugee, when water ran out people drank sea water and their own urine. They ate toothpaste. One by one people started to die. He said that they waited for a day or two before dropping the bodies into the sea. There were 20 women and two small children on board. A woman with a two-year-old boy died three days before he died. The refugee described the anguish of the boy after his mother's death.

After arrival on a beach near Zliten, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, a woman died on the beach from exhaustion. The remaining 10 men walked to the town of Zliten where they were arrested by the Libyan police. They were taken to a hospital and then to a prison where they were given some water, milk and dates. After two days another survivor died.

After begging jail staff to take the remaining survivors back to hospital, they were taken to a hospital in al-Khums city. Doctors and nurses were said to have given the group water and told them to leave. They were returned to the prison and then taken to Twesha jail near Tripoli. Finally Ethiopian friends in Tripoli paid the prison US$900 to release the men. UNHCR is now providing them with assistance in Tunisia.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Tunisia: Helene Caux on mobile: +216 928 27 423 or +41 79 217 31 93
  • In Tunisia: Firas Kayal on mobile +216 508 561 99
  • In Geneva: Sybella Wilkes on mobile +41 79 557 91 38
  • In Geneva: Melissa Fleming on number +41 22 739 91 22
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