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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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

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

Every year tens of thousands of people risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean on overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats in a bid to reach Europe. Many of them are fleeing violence and persecution and are in need of international protection. Thousands die every year trying to make it to places like Malta or Italy's tiny Lampedusa Island. It took the loss of some 600 people in boat sinkings last October to focus world attention on this humanitarian tragedy. Italy has since launched a rescue-at-sea operation using naval vessels, which have saved more than 10,000 people. Photographer Alfredo D'Amato, working with UNHCR, was on board the San Giusto, flagship of the Italian rescue flotilla, when rescued people were transferred to safety. His striking images follow.

Rescue at Sea on the Mediterranean

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.
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.