UNHCR dismayed at rising deaths from boat accidents in Mediterranean

Briefing Notes, 13 May 2014

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 13 May 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is deeply saddened at a rising death toll from boat accidents in the Mediterranean Sea this year as increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees make the journey on unseaworthy boats, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers.

Yesterday, at least 17 people drowned after a boat sank in international waters, some 160 km south of Lampedusa, Italy and around 80 km north-west of Tripoli, Libya. The dead include 12 women, three children and two men. Two merchant ships from France and Vanuatu rescued 226 people who later received medical checks by Italian doctors transferred by the Italian navy. The French vessel Bourbon Arcadia rescued 158 people and the Kehoe Tide from Vanuatu rescued 68 people.

Yesterday's tragedy follows several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight, in which 121 people are believed to have died in three separate boat accidents. The Libyan coast guard has rescued 134 people. The survivors receive medical assistance from UNHCR in cooperation with the International Medical Corps, and the Libyan Coast Guard. UNHCR also provides clothing, mattresses and other relief items to the survivors.

Of the other shipwrecks, one took place off Libya around 6 May when a boat carrying 130 people capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast. Some of the 53 surviving passengers told UNHCR that the smugglers pushed them onto the boat and set off even though the boat was damaged in the middle. Seventy seven (77) people are believed to have drowned in this incident, including four women. As of yesterday (12 May) the coastguard has recovered 44 bodies believed to be from the same shipwreck; most washed ashore in the last few days. The people on board were from Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal.

The previous week (2 May) the Libyan coast guard rescued 80 people (Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian nationals) after their unseaworthy boat started leaking, some five km off the coast. Another four people drowned in the incident.

Two days earlier (30 April), the Libyan coast guard found the wreckage of another boat off the coast of Tripoli. The sole survivor, in a critical condition, was treated at a government hospital; the remaining 40 passengers (all from Somalia) had drowned.

Shipwreck victims and survivors include people fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands and the risks they take on these perilous sea journeys reflect the limited safe options available in Libya and other contexts. UNHCR has launched an information campaign in association with the Libyan coast guard, NGOs, UN partners and asylum-seekers to inform people of the real risks involved with voyages by sea.

UNHCR welcomes the rescue operations by Italian and Libyan authorities and the cooperation of private vessels without which the death toll would have been undoubtedly higher, but asks that search and rescue operations are further strengthened, especially in waters that have a high number of incidents. We also urge governments around the world to provide legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, ensuring desperate people in need of refuge can seek and find protection and asylum. These alternatives could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and facilitated access to family reunification. Governments are also asked to resist punitive or deterrent measures such as detention for people seeking safety.

UNHCR estimates that over 170 people died at sea trying to reach Europe so far in 2014, including those who lost their lives in waters off Greece, Libya, Italy and in international waters.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva: Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva: Ariane Rummery on mobile +41 79 200 7617
  • In Rome: Federico Fossi on mobile +39 331 635 5517
  • In Rome: Carlotta Sami on mobile +39 335 679 4746
  • In Tripoli: Dunnapar Fern Tilakamonkul on mobile +218 92 850 9280
  • In Tripoli: Saado Quol on mobile +218 91 212 1003
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