UNHCR expresses concern over deaths at sea in the Caribbean

News Stories, 28 November 2013

© AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard
An aerial photo of Haitian migrants clinging to the hull of the capsized boat near Staniel Cay in the Bahamas. The image was taken from video made available by the U.S. Coastguard.

WASHINGTON, DC, United States, November 28 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has expressed concern at the recent deaths at sea following a boat capsize earlier this week in the Bahamas, the third maritime tragedy in the northern Caribbean since October. This week's incident cost the lives of up to 30 people, believed to be nationals of Haiti. Also on the boat were at least 110 other individuals, including 19 women, who were rescued by the Bahamas military and police alongside the U.S. Coast Guard. This week's tragedy follows two similar incidents in the northern Caribbean in October. One, off the shores of Florida, resulted in the drowning of four persons, while another, in the sea passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, resulted in the deaths of 12 persons with an estimated 39 people missing at sea. Among those who lost their lives in these tragedies were men, women and children from Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica. "While we mourn these senseless deaths, we also recognize the courage and commitment of the authorities for rescuing the survivors and bringing them to safety," said Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR's Regional Representative in Washington, DC. "In this hemisphere and globally, we have seen increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing dire levels of economic deprivation or escaping political turmoil and violence by taking to the high seas in search of safety or a better future," Pitterman said. In the past two months, hundreds of migrants and refugees, including Syrians and Palestinians, have been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea with many missing and feared drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Earlier this month UNHCR also expressed concern over reports that people were setting out to sea in smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life, free from persecution. The deaths at sea in the northern Caribbean highlight this alarming global trend. The most recent tragedy brings the number of reported deaths or missing at sea in the northern Caribbean to 81 this year. Since the start of 2013, UNHCR has recorded 128 maritime incidents in the region involving at least 4,281 persons who have been intercepted or rescued at sea. This represents a significant rise as compared to last year, when there were an estimated 2,600 persons involved in reported maritime incidents in the region. In May, UNHCR together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and 19 governments in the Caribbean region convened a conference on mixed migration and international protection to discuss challenges and solutions. UNHCR continues to urge all countries involved in interdiction and rescue at sea to put in place adequate measures to identify those persons who may be refugees or have other protection needs. UNHCR also urges donor countries and civil society organizations to strengthen their engagement in mixed migration issues in the Caribbean in order to improve humanitarian responses and prevent further loss of life.

By Brian Hansford in Washington, DC., USA

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UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

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

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Syrian Refugees: Desperate in LampedusaPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Desperate in Lampedusa

In the past year, more than 13,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy's Lampedusa Island on irregular migration routes. Many have died attempting the crossing. Young men from sub-Saharan Africa mix with families from Syria. All share the same dream - starting afresh in the security and stability of Europe.
Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang ViolencePlay video

Mexico: Fleeing Central American Gang Violence

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Haiti: Living in FearPlay video

Haiti: Living in Fear

UNHCR is working with a grassroots group in Haiti to help displaced women raped since last year's earthquake to get back on their feet.