Hundreds of new arrivals in Italy from Libya and Tunisia

Briefing Notes, 16 August 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 16 August 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Almost 2,000 people arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa over the weekend from Libya and Tunisia. The majority, some 1,800, set sail from Janzour, 12 kilometers west of Tripoli, Libya, where they had waited for over a week for calm sea conditions to depart. Of this number there were some 200 women and 30 children.

From interviews with some of the new arrivees, it's apparent that people are continuing to leave for a variety of reasons. A group of Sudanese men told UNHCR staff that they were rounded up in Tripoli and forced onto a boat. Others said they had lost jobs in Libya and were hoping for work in Europe.

Of the 52,000 people who have arrived in Italy as part of this year's North Africa outflow, 27,000 of these departed from Libya and the rest from Tunisia. All those arriving from Tunisia have been Tunisian. From Libya, we have seen some 134 arrivals with Libyan nationality, as well as significant numbers of Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Malians. Of the approximately 2000 Eritreans and Somalis, many had previously registered with UNHCR in Libya. UNHCR supports initiatives by the Italian Government for voluntary assisted repatriation of people found not to be in need of international protection.

To date more than 1,500 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Italy's shores, often because of unseaworthy vessels and an absence of qualified skippers onboard.

UNHCR is particularly concerned by an ongoing trend of refugees awaiting resettlement interviews in Tunisia crossing back into Libya to board boats for Europe. A mass information campaign in the camps is underway highlighting the risks of this journey.

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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

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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.

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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.

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