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2014 UNHCR regional operations profile - Northern, Western, Central and Southern Europe

| Overview |

Working environment

The 36 countries in this subregion have long traditions of refugee protection, strong legal frameworks and, for the majority of them, functioning national asylum systems. Nevertheless, different legal traditions and asylum and migration experiences shape the protection landscape of each country. Croatia, which became the 28th member-State of the European Union in July 2013, is the newest participant in the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).

The most significant development in 2013 was the adoption of amended European Union legislation on asylum and the reception of asylum-seekers. The recast statutes, which will require extensive transposition at the national level in 2014, strengthen protection standards in the region. However, discrepancies in implementation persist, leading to protection gaps in some countries and posing challenges to the functioning of the CEAS. These include challenges in the application of the Dublin III Regulation, which determines which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum application.

The trend of rising numbers of asylum applications in the region in 2011 and 2012 continued in the first half of 2013. The crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria), in particular, has increased demand for asylum throughout the region. Germany and Sweden were the most affected, with the two countries receiving more than 50 per cent of Syrian applications.

Germany was the recipient of the largest number of asylum applications overall in the region in 2013, followed by France and Sweden.

While Syrians now form the second-largest group of applicants, the biggest and still increasing group comprises people from the Russian Federation. Afghans and Serbian asylum-seekers are the third- and fourth-largest groups, respectively. Also among those seeking asylum each year are stateless people. There are currently an estimated 436,000 stateless people in the region.

Ensuring access to asylum for refugees, including at sea or land borders, remains a challenge. UNHCR calls on States to fulfil their international protection obligations when faced with irregular migration. There is little distinction in public debate between irregular migrants and refugees, and the economic crisis has also had a negative impact on the public perception of migrants. It has reduced refugees' chances of finding jobs and limited the availability of resources to build or strengthen asylum and protection systems. In this difficult operational environment, UNHCR must continue to engage governments and the institutions of the European Union to sustain access to asylum; improve the quality of asylum adjudication; promote fair and efficient asylum systems; develop and clarify legal standards; and find durable solutions, including integration, for refugees and stateless people.

| Response |

Strategies

  • UNHCR will help governments and other partners to build and maintain fair and efficient asylum and protection systems.

  • To safeguard asylum space in the broader migration context, UNHCR will work to ensure that border management is more protection-sensitive. It will make every effort to see detention is only utilized as a last resort. It will also advocate for reception conditions - including for asylum-seekers with special needs, such as unaccompanied and separated children and victims of trafficking or trauma - that meet minimum international standards.

  • UNHCR will advocate for more resettlement places and enhanced integration capacity in resettlement countries, as well as the implementation of local-integration projects for the approximately 1.6 million refugees in the region.

  • To prevent and resolve situations of statelessness, the Office will continue to urge States to accede to the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions and improve mechanisms to identify stateless people.

  • UNHCR will support European Union policy-making processes related to people of concern and mobilize political and financial support in the region for its work worldwide.

Challenges

The economic difficulties being felt throughout the region have had an impact on the ability and readiness of many countries to strengthen protection, while budgetary restrictions have affected the civil-society organizations that provide services and support to asylum-seekers and refugees. Xenophobia and related intolerance have led to incidents of discrimination and violence in some countries. Coupled with conflicts in neighbouring countries and heightened sensitivities to new influxes of asylum-seekers these concerns have, at times, led to States giving precedence to curbing irregular movement, including through tighter border control and detention and penalization for illegal entry, over their international protection obligations.

| Implementation |

Operations

UNHCR will achieve its objectives in the subregion through a multi-faceted strategy of standard-setting, advocacy and partnerships. Comments on legislation, comparative analyses and judicial engagement will allow UNHCR to contribute to the setting of legal standards at the national and regional levels. Monitoring and reporting on national practices, and comparison through multi-country studies, will facilitate gap analysis and identification of good practice. UNHCR will engage in dialogue with all levels of government and regional institutions; hold consultations with refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people; and collaborate with civil society and new stakeholders. Country operations will build on UNHCR's Age, Gender and Diversity commitments and encourage meaningful participation of refugees in the planning and implementation of government programmes.

Safeguard asylum space in the broader migration context

UNHCR's operations in the subregion work to ensure that arrivals with protection needs are referred to the appropriate authorities. With the current scale of humanitarian crises, more arrivals in the subregion can be expected. A particular focus will be on people arriving by sea. By monitoring admission practices and building the capacityof immigrationandcoastguard officials, UNHCR will aim to avert the riskof refoulement.Border-monitoring projects will also continue in the three Baltic States, Italy and Spain as well as in Central Europe. UNHCR will organize the third International Summer School on refugee law for border guards in France in addition to cross-border cooperation meetings and events. UNHCR will work with Belgium to map practices related to the referral of victims of trafficking, and with specialized counterparts in Spain to identify trafficking victims at entry points.

Adequate reception conditions and procedures that are capable of responding to the specific needs of asylum-seekers are essential components of a quality asylum system. UNHCR will continue to work to ensure dignified reception standards, including the use of detention only as a measure of last resort.

In Cyprus and Portugal, UNHCR will provide direct support to asylum-seekers with special needs. In Malta the office will work with the Government to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of detention. Alternatives to detention will be promoted more widely, including in Belgium and all countries under the purview of the Dublin Regulation. In the United Kingdom, UNHCR will advocate for a more protection-focused approach taking account of their special needs to asylum-seekers in detention whose applications are being fast-tracked. In Finland, the findings of the 2013 Age, Gender and Diversity consultations will be implemented and participatory approaches relating to the reception system will be promoted throughout the Nordic and Baltic countries.

The specific needs of some asylum-seekers, particularly unaccompanied and separated children, will be given priority by UNHCR throughout the region. The best interest of each child will remain the primary consideration in all decisions affecting him or her, including those taken within the context of the Dublin Regulation. A UNHCR-supported drop-in centre in Patras, Greece, will be dedicated to assisting unaccompanied children who are in transit and are facing serious protection risks.

UNHCR offices in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom will follow up on the Response to Vulnerability project. Standard operating procedures will be instituted in reception centres to respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Build and maintain effective asylum and protection systems

UNHCR has long sought to improve the quality of adjudication by first-instance asylum bodies in the region, and will continue to work with governments to implement quality audit mechanisms. A special emphasis will be placed on child-friendly asylum procedures, including mechanisms to determine the best interest of the child. UNHCR will advocate for more awareness of the links between trafficking and asylum, protection needs related to female genital mutilation, and the use of safe third-country or safe country of asylum concepts.

In 2013 UNHCR published Beyond Proof, a comprehensive analysis of credibility assessment in the European Union asylum system. A follow-up study on the credibility assessment in child asylum cases will be completed in 2014.

UNHCR will continue to complement the efforts of the European Asylum Support Office to improve practical cooperation among EU Member States in the building of asylum systems and improve the quality of country-of-origin information. Interpreters will be trained in Austria, the Czech Republic and other countries. UNHCR will create networks of legal practitioners and encourage improvements in legal aid, particularly in Spain and Austria. In Albania, UNHCR will provide direct legal assistance to asylum-seekers.

In 2014, UNHCR will publish a manual on case law from regional courts in Europe. It will continue to support the Conference of Refugee Law Judges in Germany and the yearly Summer School for Border Guards in Strasbourg. UNHCR will participate in the asylum adjudication process in Spain, France and Italy. In Greece, UNHCR will provide direct operational support to the authorities engaged in the reform of the asylum procedure.

To aid the transposition of the newly adopted legal standards of the CEAS, UNHCR will comment on law and share legal analysis with stakeholders at the national level, in addition to advocating for full implementation of existing legal standards. Judicial engagement and court interventions will permit UNHCR to ensure the correct application of relevant laws in refugee cases. To this end, and particularly with the operation of the Dublin Regulation in mind, UNHCR's operations will continue to make recommendations to national asylum authorities.

Increase the number of resettlement places and enhance reception and integration capacity in resettlement countries, in addition to improving local integration prospects for some 1.6 million refugees in the region

21 of the 36 countries in the subregion contribute to UNHCR's global resettlement efforts, 16 of them by operating an annual resettlement programme. Despite this, the number of resettlement places in the region is limited compared with the global number of resettlement places, with quotas and reception and integration capacity varying widely among countries. UNHCR will work to secure larger resettlement quotas and strengthen national capacities for reception and integration through the joint UNHCR-IOM-ICMC Emergency Resettlement Project, which is funded by the European Union. The project promotes good practice through its dedicated website and is helping build a resettlement practitioners' network.

Special attention will be devoted to resettlement and humanitarian admission of Syrian refugees in 2014. UNHCR will continue to manage the emergency transit centres in Timisoara (Romania) and Humenne (Slovakia). The centres host refugees eligible for resettlement who are in urgent need of evacuation to a safe place where their resettlement procedures can be finalized.

The local integration of refugees and others with protection status is central to effective asylum systems. UNHCR's operations will raise awareness of the particular challenges to integration faced by refugees, as highlighted in the research carried out in selected countries in 2013 under the EU-funded Refugee Integration: Capacity and Evaluation project. The integration evaluation tool, the use of which was piloted in Central Europe, will help governments to assess the quality of their integration programmes and identify gaps.

To aid integration, UNHCR will promote good practices in relation to labour market integration, housing and the building of social and professional networks. Awareness campaigns will highlight the particular problems of young people.

Prevent and resolve situations of statelessness

UNHCR will use the opportunity provided by the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Statelessness Convention in 2014 to advocate for accession to the Statelessness Conventions in the 16 countries of the region that have yet to sign. Studies have been undertaken in 12 countries and in particular in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in order to fully assess the scope of statelessness issues and gaps in the protection of stateless people. The absence of statelessness determination procedures in most countries has been identified as one particular gap that needs to be filled. In countries where procedures are in place, such as France, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, UNHCR will work with the authorities to improve quality of decision making. Related efforts will emphasize reform of nationality law, birth registration and the facilitation of naturalization. Cooperation with the European Network on Statelessness in advocacy and training initiatives in the region will continue.

Strengthen UNHCR's external relations and mobilize support for the work of UNHCR worldwide

UNHCR's operations in the subregion play an important role in raising awareness of its work and the needs of refugees worldwide. Within Europe, attitudes towards people of concern to the organization are often linked to national debates about migration, both legal and illegal.

In times of economic crisis, high unemployment and conflict in neighbouring regions, the growing number of refugees and migrants arriving in the region have to overcome fearful attitudes among locals.Tocounterthistrend,UNHCR works closely with civil-society organizations and others involved in refugee protection. It is represented at public events, seminars and conferences, and engages with the media to raise awareness of refugee needs. Innovative approaches include high-visibility campaigns using public spaces and transport. Particular attention is paid to improving communication through social media. Where xenophobia and racism have led to violence against asylum-seekers and refugees, UNHCR will address the problem with the help of local partners.

| Financial information |

Over the last four years, UNHCR's financial requirements in the subregion have increased slightly. In 2014, the financial requirements are set at USD 62.5 million, a slight increase from the revised 2013 budget of USD 60.2 million, mainly due to the reinforcement of the Office's responsibilities in covering the Nordic and Baltic countries. Approximately 94 per cent of the 2014 budget is allocated to refugees and asylum-seekers, with the remaining 6 per cent allocated to the stateless programme.

UNHCR budgets for the Northern, Western, Central and Southern Europe (USD)
Operation 2013
Revised budget
(as of 30 June 2013)
2014 2015
Refugee
programme
PILLAR 1
Stateless
programme
PILLAR 2
Total
Total 60,178,391 58,795,712 3,680,391 62,476,103 60,218,250
Belgium Regional Office 14,553,295 12,505,096 1,504,165 14,009,261 14,009,261
Hungary Regional Office 11,294,317 11,724,569 1,004,580 12,729,149 12,729,149
Italy Regional Office 21,728,884 22,035,168 191,910 22,227,078 19,969,225
Spain 1,459,619 1,863,715 43,808 1,907,522 1,907,522
Sweden Regional Office 3,374,032 4,405,546 935,927 5,341,473 5,341,473
Regional activities 7,768,243 6,261,619 0 6,261,619 6,261,619

Source: UNHCR Global Appeal 2014-2105


UNHCR contact information

The UNHCR Regional Representation for Southern Europe
Style of Address The UNHCR Regional Representative for Southern Europe
Street Address Via A. Caroncini, 19
00197 Roma
Italy
Mailing Address Via A. Caroncini, 19
00197 Roma
Italy
Telephone +39 06 802121 (Switchboard)
Facsimile +39 06 80212324/5/8
Website http://www.unhcr.it
Email itaro@unhcr.org
Time Zone GMT + 1:00
Working Hours
Monday:AM: 09:00 - 13:00, PM: 13:30 - 17:00
Tuesday:AM: 09:00 - 13:00, PM: 13:30 - 17:00
Wednesday:AM: 09:00 - 13:00, PM: 13:30 - 17:00
Thursday:AM: 09:00 - 13:00, PM: 13:30 - 17:00
Friday:AM: 09:00 - 13:00, PM: 13:30 - 15:00
Saturday:
Sunday:
Public Holidays 03 January - in lieu of 1 January (New Year's Day)
22 April - Good Friday
25 April - Easter Monday
02 June - in lieu of 1 May (Labour Day)
15 August - Assumption Day
31 August - Eid al-Fitr
01 November - All Saint's Day
07 November - Eid al-Adha
23 December 2011, Christmas Day (observed)
26 December - Boxing Day
Comments Countries covered: Albania, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, San Marino, Holy See.
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Statistical Snapshot*
* As at January 2014
  1. Country or territory of asylum or residence. In the absence of Government estimates, UNHCR has estimated the refugee population in most industrialized countries based on 10 years of asylum-seekers recognition.
  2. Persons recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention/1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, persons granted a complementary form of protection and those granted temporary protection. It also includes persons in a refugee-like situation whose status has not yet been verified.
  3. Persons whose application for asylum or refugee status is pending at any stage in the procedure.
  4. Refugees who have returned to their place of origin during the first six months of 2013. Source: Country of origin and asylum.
  5. Persons who are displaced within their country and to whom UNHCR extends protection and/or assistance. It also includes persons who are in an IDP-like situation.
  6. IDPs protected/assisted by UNHCR who have returned to their place of origin during the first six months of 2013.
  7. Refers to persons under UNHCR's statelessness mandate.
  8. Persons of concern to UNHCR not included in the previous columns but to whom UNHCR extends protection and/or assistance.
  9. The category of people in a refugee-like situation is descriptive in nature and includes groups of people who are outside their country of origin and who face protection risks similar to those of refugees, but for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained.
The data are generally provided by Governments, based on their own definitions and methods of data collection.
A dash (-) indicates that the value is zero, not available or not applicable.

Source: UNHCR/Governments.
Compiled by: UNHCR, FICSS.
Residing in Italy [1]
Refugees [2] 78,061
Asylum Seekers [3] 13,653
Returned Refugees [4] 0
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) [5] 0
Returned IDPs [6] 0
Stateless Persons [7] 350
Various [8] 0
Total Population of Concern 92,064
Originating from Italy [1]
Refugees [2] 66
Asylum Seekers [3] 79
Returned Refugees [4] 0
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) [5] 0
Returned IDPs [6] 0
Various [8] 0
Total Population of Concern 145
Government Contributions to UNHCR
2013 Contributions Breakdown
Total contribution in USD: 10,531,936 [rank: 20]
Total contribution in currency: 7,749,637 (EUR); 323,480 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 646,831 [rank: 22]
Donor ranking per GDP: 35
Donor ranking per capita: 29
2013 Contributions chart
Contributions since 2000
YearUSD
2014
More info 2,116,845
As at 2 July 2014
2013
More info10,531,936
Total contribution in USD: 10,531,936 [rank: 20]
Total contribution in currency: 7,749,637 (EUR); 323,480 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 646,831 [rank: 22]
Donor ranking per GDP: 35
Donor ranking per capita: 29
2012
More info12,827,585
Total contribution in USD: 12,827,585 [rank: 18]
Total contribution in currency: 9,379,824 (EUR); 691,678 (USD)
Donor ranking per GDP: 33
Donor ranking per capita: 28
2011
More info 7,841,708
Total contribution in USD: 7,841,708 [rank: 19]
Total contribution in currency: 5,141,469 EUR; 777,245 USD
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 408,719 [rank: 22]
Donor ranking per GDP: 30
Donor ranking per capita: 27
2010
More info11,477,673
Total contribution in USD: 11,477,673 (rank: 18)
Total contribution in currency: 7,762,338 EUR; 733,355 USD
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 2,164,502 (rank: 17)
Donor ranking per GDP: 31
Donor ranking per capita: 27
2009
More info15,449,784
Total contribution in USD: 15,449,784 (1) (rank: 18)
Total contribution in currency: 9,756,465 EUR; 1,911,460 USD
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 1,646,904 (rank: 19)
Donor ranking per GDP: 29
Donor ranking per capita: 26
(1) Includes USD 150,602 from the Region of Veneto.
2008
More info44,117,001
Total contribution in USD: 44,117,001 [1] (rank: 10)
Total contribution in currency: 30,238,213 (EUR)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 10,204,082 (rank: 11)
Donor ranking per GDP: 19
Donor ranking per capita: 19
[1] Includes USD 129,534 from the Region of Veneto.
2007
More info19,074,876
Total contribution in USD: 19,074,876 [1] (rank: 16)
Total contribution in currency: 13,907,485 (EUR)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 2,735,978 (rank: 14)
Donor ranking per GDP: 23
Donor ranking per capita: 23
[1] Includes USD 186,966 from Regione Veneto and USD 25,628 from the Municipality of Rome.
2006
More info10,473,189
Total contribution in USD: 10,473,189 [1] (rank: 20)
Total contribution in currency: 7,126,531 (EUR); 1,492,781 (USD)
Unrestricted contribution (USD): 5,102,041 (rank: 13)
Donor ranking per GDP: 24
Donor ranking per capita: 22
[1] Of which, USD 84,643 from Regione Veneto. In addition, USD 12,844 from Regione Emilia Romagna is shown in the donor profile for the private sector fund-raising programme in Italy.
2005
More info15,863,839
USD 15,863,839 of which USD 5,821,475 (37%) unrestricted; USD 323,415 (2%) earmarked at the subregional level, USD 9,317,914 (59%) earmarked at the country level and USD 401,035 (2%) earmarked at the sectoral / thematic level.
2004
More info12,175,249
USD 12,175,249 [1] of which USD 5,514,706 (45%) was unrestricted, USD 6,295,127 (52%) earmarked at the country level, USD 365,415 (3%) at the sector /thematic level and USD 261,438 undefined [2]
[1] Does not include a 2004 contribution of USD 261,438 from the Emergency Bilateral Fund which is shown as allocated in 2005 for the Supplementary Programme Budget: Indian Ocean Earthquake / Tsunami.
[2] This 2004 undefined contribution of USD 261,438 from the Emergency Bilateral Fund is allocated in 2005 for the Supplementary Programme Budget: Indian Ocean Earthquake / Tsunami.
2003
More info21,555,360
USD 21,555,360 [1] of which USD 5,701,254 (27%) was unrestricted, USD 12,492,376 (58%) earmarked at the country level, USD 3,133,159 (15%) at the sectoral level and USD 228,572 (1%) undefined [2]
[1] Does not include a 2002 contribution of USD 173,872 from the Emergency bilateral fund which was shown as undefined in the 2002 Global Report donor profile allocated in 2003 for the Supplementary Appeal for Côte d'Ivoire, in the context of the Liberia emergency.
[2] The 2003 undefined contribution of USD 228,571 from the Emergency bilateral fund was allocated in February 2004 for the emergency in eastern Chad.
2002
More info13,809,819
USD 13,809,819 of which USD 5,051,813 unrestricted (37%), USD 198,556 earmarked at the sub-regional level (1%), USD 6,749,413 earmarked at the country level (49%), USD 1,636,165 earmarked at the sector level (12%), USD 173,872 undefined (1%).
2001
More info24,731,596
USD 24,731,596 of which 5,339,670 (22%) unrestricted and 19,132,035 (78%) earmarked.
2000
More info10,484,922
USD 10,484,922 of which 1,116,809 (11%) unrestricted and 9,368,113 (89%) earmarked.
Private Sector Contributions to UNHCR
Private sector fund raising 2013

Total contribution in USD: 17,254,729
Total contribution in currency: 13,039,841 (EUR)
Major donorsUSD
Fondazione Prosolidar-Onlus332,902
AC Milan194,805
Nando Peretti Foundation163,620
Consiglio Italiano Rifugiati144,937
CNA64,350

2013 Contributions chart
Contributions since 2006
YearUSD
2014
More info 7,651,410
As at 8 May 2014
2013
More info17,254,729

Total contribution in USD: 17,254,729
Total contribution in currency: 13,039,841 (EUR)
Major donorsUSD
Fondazione Prosolidar-Onlus332,902
AC Milan194,805
Nando Peretti Foundation163,620
Consiglio Italiano Rifugiati144,937
CNA64,350
2012
More info14,265,922

Total contribution in USD: 14,265,922
Total contribution in currency: 11,056,253 (EUR); 58,114 (USD)
Major donorsUSD
Fondazione Prosolidar-Onlus224,755
ITA AC Milan194,805
Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati152,255
2011
More info13,758,375

Total contribution in USD: 13,758,375
Total contribution in currency: 9,830,373 (EUR); 143,340 (USD)
Major donorsUSD
Prosolidar848,915
Fondazione Nando Peretti253,394
Comitato Collaborazione Medica143,340
Fondazione Milan122,989
Consiglio Italiano Rifugiati (CIR)118,857
BNL Foundation65,341
2010
More info 8,794,379

Total contribution in USD: 8,794,379
Total contribution in currency: 6,657,170 EUR
Major donorsUSD
Pirelli246,569
Fondazione Nando Peretti139,862
Prosolidar111,737
2009 5,495,833
2008 4,967,245
2007 5,210,109
2006 3,403,315

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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

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Fleeing Libya by sea

Thousands of people, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, are taking to the sea in ancient, leaky and overcrowded boats to escape war in their adopted homeland. Libya. The destination of choice is the Italian resort island of Lampedusa, some 600 kilometres north of Libya in the Mediterranean. Many of the passengers arrive traumatized and exhausted from the high seas journey. Others perish en route.

One Ivorian migrant describes life in Tripoli before leaving: "There was no peace. There was rifle fire everywhere. Then NATO started to bomb. We had nothing to eat. Some Libyans started to attack strangers at night, to steal your money, your mobile, whatever you have ... No way to stay there with them. Better to flee."

UNHCR estimates that one in 10 people die during the sea journey from Libya. Those bodies which wash ashore get a simple burial in Lampedusa's cemetery.

May 2011

Fleeing Libya by sea

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Earlier this month, within sight of shore after a long journey from Libya, a boat carrying hundreds of people foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 300 people, many of them children, drowned and only 156 people were picked out of the water alive. The tragedy was staggering for its heavy death toll, but it is unlikely to prevent people from making the dangerous and irregular journey by sea to try and reach Europe. Many seek a better life in Europe, but others are escaping persecution in countries like Eritrea and Somalia. And it's not just happening on the Mediterranean. Desperate people fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution are risking their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden from Africa; Rohingya from Myanmar are heading into the Bay of Bengal on flimsy boats in search of a safe haven; people of several nationalities try to reach Australia by boat; others cross the Caribbean. And many remember the Vietnamese boat people exodus of the 1970s and 1980s. As then, governments need to work together to reduce the risk to life. These photos, from UNHCR's archives, capture the plight of boat people around the world.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

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.

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in SicilyPlay video

Italy: Thousands of Refugees Rescued in Sicily

Over 1,200 migrants were rescued from inflatable boats off the boast of Lampedusa on the 7th of February by the Italian navy. Young men, women and children, crammed into eight dinghies and a boat, were spotted by helicopter half way between Tunisia and Italy.

Italy: Waiting for AsylumPlay video

Italy: Waiting for Asylum

Sicily has a high number of asylum-seekers because of its location in the south of Italy. In 2011, Cara Mineo was set up to provide asylum-seekers with a place to live while their applications were processed. Today, more than 4,000 people stay there and must wait up to a year for a decision on their applications.

Syrian Refugees: Stranded in MilanPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Stranded in Milan

Growing numbers of Syrians have been trying to reach Europe after fleeing their war-torn country. In the northern Italian commercial and financial centre of Milan, a refugee shelter was created in a day after large numbers of Syrian families were found camping in front of the Milan Central railway station. As they wait, they are glad to at least be protected from the cold winter.

Syrian Refugees: Desperate in LampedusaPlay video

Syrian Refugees: Desperate in Lampedusa

In the past year, more than 13,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy's Lampedusa Island on irregular migration routes. Many have died attempting the crossing. Young men from sub-Saharan Africa mix with families from Syria. All share the same dream - starting afresh in the security and stability of Europe.

Italy: Jolie and Guterres visit Lampedusa Play video

Italy: Jolie and Guterres visit Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and UNHCR chief António Guterres see conditions for migrants, including refugees, on Italy's Lampedusa Island.
Malta: Angelina Jolie meets asylum seekersPlay video

Malta: Angelina Jolie meets asylum seekers

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visits an old air force base on Malata and talks to asylum-seekers who have fled North Africa.
Italy Sea rescuePlay video

Italy Sea rescue

A Guardia di Finanza vessel, which normally operates against drug smugglers, arrives in Italy's Lampedusa Island with a group of boat people rescued at sea after fleeing Libya.
Italy: Surviving the High SeasPlay video

Italy: Surviving the High Seas

Thousands have risked their lives to make the sea crossing from western Libya Africa to Italy's tiny Lampedusa Island. Not everyone makes it. Here are some of the survivors.
UNHCR: Boat OrdealPlay video

UNHCR: Boat Ordeal

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming talks about a boat that drifted in the Mediterranean for more than two weeks after leaving Libya. Only nine of the 72 passengers survived.
Italy: Fleeing TunisiaPlay video

Italy: Fleeing Tunisia

Thousands of Tunisians have landed on Italy's Lampedusa Island. They say they are looking for a better life and want to escape violence in their country.
Testimonial: Lampedusa Coastguard chiefPlay video

Testimonial: Lampedusa Coastguard chief

Testimony by Lampedusa Coastguard chief