Lampedusa boat tragedy – update

Briefing Notes, 4 October 2013

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 4 October 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

On Italy's Lampedusa, the efforts this morning are focused on helping survivors following yesterday's tragedy involving a boat carrying Eritreans. A colleague in Lampedusa who we spoke to an hour ago is reporting 155 survivors, all but one of whom is Eritrean (the other is Tunisian). Among these people are 40 unaccompanied boys aged between 14 and 17, and six women. They are exhausted and in a state of shock. Some 111 bodies have been recovered. Others are still missing, presumed trapped inside the boat. Those who died presumably either could not swim or were trapped in the boat's crammed lower deck.

Currently the survivors have been moved to a nearby reception centre, already overcrowded and holding some 1000 people from other recent boat arrivals. UNHCR will be meeting the survivors of this latest accident today, and they will be provided with advice on asylum procedures. We have additional staff arriving from Rome this morning, and a Red Cross psychologist will be providing counselling.

According to the survivors, the boat they were on left from Libya 13 days ago carrying 500 people. Most came aboard at Misrata, but others joined them further west in Zuwara. As they approached the Italian coast early yesterday the boat's engine stopped. They had been hoping to be seen and rescued but, they said, fishing boats passed without helping. They then set fire to clothing and blankets to attract attention. The vessel was finally spotted by a tourist boat which sounded the alert. The Italian coast guard came to their rescue.

High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres commented today: "There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call. More effective international cooperation is required including a crack-down on traffickers and smugglers while protecting their victims. It shows how important it is for refugees to have legal channels to access territories where they can find protection."

For 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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UNHCR country pages

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

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

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.