UNHCR appeals to EU for beefed up Mediterranean search and rescue capacity as at least 29 deaths are reported off Lampedusa

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 10 February 2015, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday's sea tragedy off Lampedusa, the first major loss of life in the Mediterranean in 2015, is known to have claimed at least 29 lives as information available this morning. 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.

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 - the incident is a reminder of why it was felt important after the Lampedusa disaster of October 2013 for there to be much more effective rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.

Already in 2015, and even with January and February weather conditions, we are seeing significantly higher numbers of refugees and migrants attempting boat journeys across the Mediterranean compared to this period last year. In January alone 3528 arrivals were reported in Italy, compared to 2171 in January of 2014. 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, 9 other people were recovered from two other near-empty dinghies off Libya. The fate of others believed to have been aboard these boats is not yet known.

2014 saw at least 218,000 people crossing the Mediterranean with over 3500 lives being lost - a number that would have been higher if not for the efforts of Italy's Mare Nostrum rescue operation which is no longer in operation. Europe's Triton operation, which is run by the European border protection agency Frontex, has a different focus and is no replacement for proper search and rescue capacity. Without proper search and rescue we should expect further such tragedies.

UNHCR reiterates its call for the EU 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 route mainly involving migrants 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. The Frontex operation, Triton, and European Asylum Support Office help to Italy cannot be the only form of solidarity and humanity Europe can demonstrate.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Rome, Carlotta Sami on mobile +39 335 679 4746
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • In Geneva: Babar Baloch, +41 79 557 9106