UNHCR urges beefed up search and rescue capacity as at least 29 die off Italy

All but seven of the fatalities died of hypothermia after being rescued. The rescue effort in high seas and poor weather conditions resulted in 106 lives being saved.

A young boy surrounded by adults after being rescued in June last year from a boat on the Mediterranean Sea. More than 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes last year while about 3,500 lost their lives in the attempt.  © UNHCR/A.D'Amato

GENEVA, February 10 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday mourned the first major maritime loss of life this year off the coast of Italy, and called on the European Union to beef up search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea.

At least 29 people lost their lives Monday in the latest Mediterranean tragedy off Italy's Lampedusa Island, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva. "UNHCR is both deeply saddened by this news, and concerned about the manner of the deaths - all but seven of which appear to have occurred on board the rescue vessel, with people dying of hypothermia," he said.

"While we applaud all involved in the rescue effort - which took place in high seas and poor weather conditions and resulted in 106 lives being saved - this is an example of why it was felt important in October 2013, following tragedies that occurred then, to underline the need for a much more effective and improved rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to cope with the scale of the problem," he added.

Edwards said that the number of refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on smugglers' boats in the first few weeks of this year was "significantly higher" compared to the same period last year. In January alone, 3,528 arrivals were reported in Italy, compared to 2,171 in January last year. Including the lives lost yesterday, 50 deaths have been recorded compared to 12 by this point last year.

"Additionally worrying is that, with yesterday's incident, there are indications that more people were attempting to reach Italy last night. As well as the dinghy carrying over 100 people, nine other people were recovered from two other near-empty dinghies [off Libya]. The fate of the others believed to have been aboard these boats is not known," Edwards said.

More than 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean by irregular routes last year while about 3,500 lost their lives in the attempt - a number that would have been higher if not for Italy's Mare Nostrum rescue operation, which ended last year. Europe's current Triton operation has a different focus and is no replacement for proper search and rescue capacity.

Edwards reiterated UNHCR's call for the European Union to ensure this capacity and to provide Italy with proper support to deal with people making irregular crossings of the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has gone from being a so-called mixed migration route, to being a major route for refugees fleeing war.

In January, Syrians were the largest single population group among people arriving in Italy - accounting for around 22 per cent of the total. People from other refugee-producing countries were also prominent among the remaining numbers who undertook this journey.