UNHCR calls for urgent European action to end refugee and migrant deaths at sea

News Stories, 24 July 2014

© UNHCR/A.D'Amato
Onboard an Italian ship, a Syrian man holds his one-year-old son as they wait to be checked by doctors. Like the men in the background, they were rescued in the middle of the Mediterranean.

GENEVA, Switzerland, 24 July (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency called Thursday for urgent European action to stop rising refugee and migrant deaths at sea, after more than 260 people have died or been reported missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe in the last 10 days alone.

Survivors reported disturbing incidents of mass drownings, suffocations and a suspected multiple stabbing, UNHCR said in a statement issued in Geneva. The grim tally brings to some 800 the total number of deaths at sea so far this year, compared to a total of 600 deaths in all of 2013, and 500 in 2012.

"The death of 260 people in less than ten days, in the most horrifying of circumstances, is evidence that the Mediterranean crisis is intensifying," said António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Europeans need to take urgent action to stop this catastrophe getting worse in the second half of 2014."

The tragedies mark an intensifying crisis on Europe's shores, as many fleeing Eritrea, Syria and other countries torn by violence seek safety in Europe by risking their lives at sea in the hand of smugglers.

More than 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014 25 per cent more than the 60,000 who made the same journey in the whole of 2013, and over three times the 22,500 who arrived in all of 2012.

Italy received the greatest number of arrivals (63,884), followed by Greece (10,080), Spain (1,000) and Malta (227). A further 21,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy since 1 July. The largest numbers came from Eritrea, Syria and Mali. Most left from North Africa, and principally Libya.

Huge numbers of these nearly 11,000 -- are children, and some 6,500 of those, mostly Eritreans, were on their own or separated from their families.

Over the weekend of 19-20 July alone, Italian and Maltese authorities, together with several commercial vessels, rescued 8,000 people.

Guterres praised both Italy and Malta for their efforts, but said European states needed to step up their assistance. He called on governments to strengthen rescue operations, provide swift access to asylum procedures for those in need of protection, and offer legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings.

Rescued refugees and migrants have reported handing over their life savings to smugglers, in order to travel in unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, packed into a few metres of space without food, water or life jackets.

The journey can take between one and four days, depending on the weather, sea and boat conditions. In several incidents, people were stranded for more than two weeks before being rescued.

On 14 July, Italian authorities rescued 12 people 40 miles off the coast of Libya. Survivors said their rubber dinghy had been carrying 121 people. Passengers panicked when it started to deflate on one side, and it capsized. A total of 109 people are missing; one man said he lost his pregnant wife during the incident.

On 15 July, 29 people were found dead from apparent asphyxiation in the hold of a fishing boat. Italian police this week arrested five men on suspicion of murdering and throwing overboard more than 100 migrants attempting to cross from Africa to Europe on that boat. Reports say as many as 131 people are missing and presumed dead after some were stabbed and others thrown overboard when they sought to escape suffocating poisonous fumes below deck.

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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.

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

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

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Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

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