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




UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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

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.


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

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.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

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

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.
Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6Play video

Too Much Pain: The Voices of Refugee Women, part 1/6

Stories of refugee women who have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and are engaged to end this practice. These women explain their experiences of flight, asylum and integration in the EU.