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

News Stories, 17 May 2011

© UNHCR/F.Noy
An Italian coastguard vessel, carrying 142 people rescued at sea after fleeing Tripoli, prepares to dock at Lampedusa harbour. Anyone making the sea journey risks their life.

GENEVA, May 17 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that hundreds of displaced people have been crossing back into Libya from Tunisia and Egypt 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 Choucha near Tunisia's border with Libya," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

UNHCR is in discussions with these communities about the dangers involved in sailing the high seas as well as the risks people take in crossing the Libyan border. In March, UNHCR learnt from the Somali community in Choucha that two Somalis were shot dead in Libya 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, more than 1,200 people who set out on boats are unaccounted for since March 25.

UNHCR has met with refugees in Tripoli who are planning to make the perilous sea journey. "They are all 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," Fleming said.

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, UNHCR believes that thousands more will attempt to make this journey by sea. The majority have made the voyage in boats that are overcrowded and in poor condition. There is often no qualified skipper or crew to operate the boat.

"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," Fleming said.

The spokesperson also noted that UNHCR hoped to be able to re-establish an international presence in western Libya soon. "In the meantime our national staff and partners are running projects to assist refugees and asylum-seekers," she said.

"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.

But Fleming said that UNHCR had learnt with sadness "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."

UNHCR estimates that 6,000 people will need resettlement from the borders of Egypt and Tunisia in the coming months, as well as 2,000 from Cairo. So far, 11 resettlement countries have offered more than 900 resettlement places. In addition the United States has offered a significant, but unspecified, number of resettlement places.

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Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

UNHCR country pages

Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

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

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

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