Hundreds return to Libya in desperate bid to reach Europe by boat

Briefing Notes, 17 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 17 May 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Hundreds of people who had fled Libya for Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks, have crossed back into Libya with the intention of boarding boats to reach Europe. Among them are refugees, including members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the camps at Shousha near Tunisia's border with Libya.

UNHCR is in ongoing discussions with these communities, highlighting the risks involved in this journey at sea as well as the risks they take in crossing the Libyan border. In March, UNHCR learnt from the Somali community at Shousha camp that two Somalis were killed in Libya after they were shot after crossing back from Tunisia.

To date around 14,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy and Malta from Libya. Of this number 1,669 arrived on Friday and Saturday. Based on accounts from survivors and family members, over 1,200 people are unaccounted for since March 25.

UNHCR has met with refugees in Tripoli who are planning to make this treacherous journey. They are all fully aware of the high death toll, but they told us that they feel they have nothing to lose. One Eritrean man told us he would rather die trying to reach safety than continue to live in danger. Many have been living in Libya for several years; have faced periods of detention, and come from countries like Eritrea and Somalia where safe return is not a possibility.

Based on discussions with people who have arrived in Italy, we believe that thousands more will attempt to make this journey by sea. The majority have made the voyage in boats that are overladen with passengers and in a very poor state of repair. In addition, there is often no qualified skipper or crew to operate the boat, multiplying the risks. UNHCR repeats its call to all vessels on the Mediterranean to consider all boats departing Libya to be in need of assistance, and likely to face a situation of distress at some point in the journey.

We hope to be able to reestablish an international presence in western Libya soon. In the meantime our national staff and partners are running projects to assist refugees and asylum-seekers. We plan to expand this assistance in order to alleviate the hardship faced by many refugees. Many have told us that basic survival is a struggle with the departure of the expatriate population and the collapse of the Libyan economy.

UNHCR has teams of staff interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt and Tunisia to assess their claims and, where possible, refer them for resettlement. It is with great sadness that UNHCR has learnt that people on track for resettlement following interviews last year in Libya lost their lives while trying to reach Europe recently. People in the middle of the resettlement process and vulnerable cases are prioritized in our interview schedule.

We estimate that 6,000 people will need resettlement from the borders of Egypt and Tunisia in the coming months, as well as 2000 from Cairo. So far 11 resettlement countries have offered over 900 resettlement places. In addition the United States has offered a significant, but unspecified number of resettlement places.

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



UNHCR country pages

Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

Since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011, more than 1.6 million Syrians have fled their homeland to escape the fighting. Most have sought shelter in countries neighbouring Syria - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But a significant number have made their way to Egypt in recent months. They are coming by air from Lebanon after leaving Syria, and also by sea. Since March, UNHCR has been registering about 2,000 a week. To date, almost 80,000 have registered as refugees, with half of them women and children. UNHCR believes there may be many more and the refugee agency is reaching out to these people so that they can receive vital protection and assistance and get access to basic services. The Syrians are staying with host families or renting apartments, mainly in urban centres such as Cairo, Sixth of October City, Alexandria and Damietta. The refugees heading to Egypt say they are attracted by its open door policy for Syrian refugees and by the lower rents and living costs. The following photographs were taken by Shawn Baldwin.

Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

After violence erupted in Libya in February last year, tens of thousands of people began streaming into Egypt at the Sallum border crossing. Most were Egyptian workers, but almost 40,000 third country nationals also turned up at the border and had to wait until they could be repatriated. Today, with the spotlight long gone, a group of more than 2,000 people remain, mainly single young male refugees from the Sudan. But there are also women, children and the sick and elderly waiting for a solution to their situation. Most are likely to be resettled in third countries, but those who arrived after October are not being considered for resettlement, while some others have been rejected for refugee status. They live in tough conditions at the Egyptian end of the border crossing. A site for a new camp in no man's land has been identified. UNHCR, working closely with the border authorities, plays the major role in providing protection and assistance.

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

UNHCR Syrians KhomsPlay video

UNHCR Syrians Khoms

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya Play video

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya

Two Eritreans set out on a perilous journey to Europe, crossing Sudan and the Sahara arriving in Libya during its 2011 revolution. They arrive in Tripoli having avoided the risks of detention and despite contending with a crippling handicap: both David and his wife Amitu are deaf and mute.
Libya: Cost of WarPlay video

Libya: Cost of War

Sirte was heavily damaged during last year's fighting.