UNHCR Chief expresses shock at new Mediterranean boat tragedy

Press Releases, 12 October 2013

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres expressed his shock that yet another boat tragedy in the Mediterranean has cost the lives of at least 26 people, mostly women and children.

Mr. Guterres commended the joint action taken by the Maltese coast guard to rescue 147 people and the Italian navy, which rescued 56. But according to survivors, there were as many as 400 Syrians and Palestinians on the boat, many now missing and feared drowned. The rescue took place 60 miles south east of Lampedusa, in Maltese waters.

"This is the third boat tragedy in the Mediterranean in just two weeks," Mr. Guterres said. "It is shameful to witness hundreds of unwitting migrants and refugees drowning on Europe's borders."

Mr. Guterres expressed particular worry that Syrians, who are fleeing a frightening conflict, are resorting to this dangerous route and drowning as they were seeking a safe haven in Europe. "There is something fundamentally inhumane in a world where which Syrians are forced to risk their lives in the hands of ruthless smugglers in attempt to reach safety in Europe. They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum," he said.

Mr. Guterres was also gravely concerned to learn of testimonies by survivors that they were shot at by a vessel shortly after departing Zwara, Libya, wounding three passengers. He expressed his hope that this incident can be clarified and those responsible brought to justice.

Two other boats, one with 183 passengers and the other with 83, were rescued last night off Lampedusa. 785 people are being hosted on the island, including the 156 survivors of the 3 October shipwreck. So far, 359 bodies have been recovered from the wreck.

UNHCR is calling for a number of urgent measures to prevent further tragedies and increase burden sharing:

1. A strengthened search and rescue capacity for rescue at sea in the Mediterranean to identify boats in distress, in particular those carrying refugees and migrants.

2. Shipmasters undertaking search and rescue operations should not be accused of facilitating the smuggling of the persons rescued or confronted with criminal charges.

3. The establishment of effective and predictable mechanisms for identifying places of safety for the disembarkation of rescued refugees and migrants.

4. The enhancement of reception facilities in Malta and Lampedusa and the establishment of additional facilities with access to assistance and care.

5. The establishment of profiling and referral mechanisms, including access to fair and efficient asylum procedures for those who may possibly be in need of international protection, based on the understanding that disembarkation does not necessarily imply sole responsibility for processing and solutions by the State on whose territory persons rescued at sea are disembarked.

6. Persons found in need of international protection should be given access to a durable solution, which could include mechanisms for an equitable distribution/relocation of those recognized as refugees or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection within the European Union or evacuation to a designated Evacuation Transit Centre based on existing models from where resettlement efforts could be undertaken both to European countries and non- European countries.

7. The gathering, analysis and sharing of data on movements by sea in the Mediterranean region, aimed at increasing knowledge of routes, motives and profiles of arrivals as a basis for building shared assessments and responses.

8. Further development of capacity and institution building of countries of transit including coordination efforts to identify and prosecute persons involved in smuggling and trafficking.

9. Reinforcement of protection strategies in countries of first asylum crossed by persons embarking on boats. These can include support to local integration through formal education, vocational training and livelihood support. It should also include enhanced resettlement efforts, facilitated access to family reunion options and other protection entry mechanisms.

10. Increased mass information programmes on local media and along the transit routes, including points of entry, aimed at informing all potential population of risks of onward movements.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • Melissa Fleming on mobile +41 79 557 9122
  • Barbara Molinario on mobile +39 338 546 2932 (in Rome)
  • Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106



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: Nightmare at seaPlay video

Italy: Nightmare at sea

Ali's father calls him 'Miracle Ali. The toddler's parents along with 40-days old Ali who suffers from Down's Syndrome were onboard an overcrowded fishing boat when it capsized less than 12 hours after departure from Libya to go to Italy. The tragedy left hundreds missing, now presumed dead. The survivors arrived in Italy thankful but shocked by their ordeal.
Italy: Maya's Song Play video

Italy: Maya's Song

Nawaf, his wife and children are used to the sea, they lived by it and Nawaf was a fisherman back in Syria. They never imagined they would be boarding a boat that was a one way passage out of Syria. Nawaf was on the run after brief time in detention were he was tortured. By the time he release, he was blind in one eye. Now safely in Europe the family is looking forward to restarting their life in Germany, to having their 6-year old daughter go to school for the first time.

Italy: Fashion Designer in MilanPlay video

Italy: Fashion Designer in Milan

Single mother Lamia had her own fashion workshop in Syria, she comes from a comfortable background but lost all her money in the war. Under the sound of gunfire she closed the workshop, took her two children and headed to Sudan in a lorry with dozens other people. She is now seeking asylum in Italy's fashion capital, Milan.