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UNHCR shocked by boat tragedy off Lampedusa

Press Releases, 3 October 2013

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres expresses his shock at today's boat tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa, which so far is reported to have claimed 82 lives.

Mr. Guterres commended the swift action taken by the Italian coast guard to save lives. At the same time, he expressed his dismay at a rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea.

Of the estimated 500 passengers on the boat, believed to be Eritreans, only 147 have been rescued so far. The boat, which originated from Libya, caught fire half a mile from the coast.

UNHCR is actively engaging with countries in the region to provide effective alternatives for people resorting to taking these dangerous journeys so they don't have to risk their lives.

This is the second boat disaster this week off Italy's coast. 13 men drowned off the Southern coast of Italy on Monday when they attempted to swim ashore.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Melissa Fleming on mobile +41 79 557 9122
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva, Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011
  • In Rome, Federico Fossi on mobile +39 331 635 55 17
  • In Rome, Barbara Molinario on mobile +39 338 546 2932
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Lampedusa Tragedy: UNHCR's Protection Chief CommentsPlay video

Lampedusa Tragedy: UNHCR's Protection Chief Comments

Volker Türk, UNHCR's Director of International Protection, speaks about the deaths of scores of people aboard a crowded boat that caught fire off the coast of Italy.

UNHCR country pages

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

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

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.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.
Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.