Italy rescues 6,000 people crossing Mediterranean in four days

News Stories, 11 April 2014

© UNHCR/A.Belrhazi
UNHCR staff talk with some of the growing number of people making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to Italy. Many of them have fled violence and persecution.

GENEVA, April 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said on Friday the Italian navy had rescued some 6,000 people who had set out from Libya in overcrowded boats over the past four days alone.

Those rescued off the shores of Sicily and Calabria from more than 40 boats included large numbers of women and children, among them newborns and unaccompanied children, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.

They had set off from Zwara in Libya, and many were fleeing violence, conflict and persecution. Most of them came originally from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali and Senegal.

The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world, as well as a dangerous frontier for many asylum-seekers trying to find safety in Europe. Protecting refugees travelling irregularly by sea in search of safety, often with people moving for other reasons, is a complex challenge.

"UNHCR continues to urge states to work together to rescue people at sea at the same time as looking for alternative legal channels to prevent people from having to make these dangerous journeys in the first place," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.

She said there also needs to be sufficient capacity and adequate reception facilities to receive rescued asylum-seekers and migrants.

"Additional reception facilities and assistance in processing arrivals, as well as identifying durable solutions for them, could be established with support from the European Union," Fleming told reporters. "UNHCR is ready to work with governments and other partners to identify longer-term solutions in response to the current situation."

The Italian navy disembarked those rescued this week in the ports of Augusta, Catania, Porto Empedocle, Messina and Pozzallo in Sicily and Roccella Jonica in Calabria.

Since the Italian government set up the rescue operation Mare Nostrum in October 2013, following tragic shipwrecks in which over 600 people died, more than 20,000 people have been rescued at sea.

The number arriving by sea in Italy this year is now some 18,000 people. Almost 43,000 people arrived in 2013; Syrians fleeing the violence in their country were the largest group, with over 11,300 arrivals.

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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

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

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Earlier this month, within sight of shore after a long journey from Libya, a boat carrying hundreds of people foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 300 people, many of them children, drowned and only 156 people were picked out of the water alive. The tragedy was staggering for its heavy death toll, but it is unlikely to prevent people from making the dangerous and irregular journey by sea to try and reach Europe. Many seek a better life in Europe, but others are escaping persecution in countries like Eritrea and Somalia. And it's not just happening on the Mediterranean. Desperate people fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution are risking their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden from Africa; Rohingya from Myanmar are heading into the Bay of Bengal on flimsy boats in search of a safe haven; people of several nationalities try to reach Australia by boat; others cross the Caribbean. And many remember the Vietnamese boat people exodus of the 1970s and 1980s. As then, governments need to work together to reduce the risk to life. These photos, from UNHCR's archives, capture the plight of boat people around the world.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the 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: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.