UNHCR welcomes positive outcome for 51 boat people off Malta

News Stories, 21 July 2006

GENEVA, July 21 (UNHCR) UNHCR on Friday welcomed the Spanish government's role in finding a solution for a group of people stuck off the coast of Malta since being rescued by a Spanish fishing trawler on July 14, ending a weeklong stand-off.

On Friday afternoon, all 48 people remaining aboard the "Francisco Catalina" were allowed to disembark in Malta, joining three others a 2-year-old child, her mother and a pregnant woman who were earlier transferred to a hospital in the Maltese capital, Valetta.

Under a burden-sharing arrangement in which the European Commission played a key role, two Spanish planes were to transport most of the group to Madrid. Andorra, Italy and Malta also offered to take some members of the group.

"We are very grateful to the Spanish authorities and to the other governments involved for this generous humanitarian gesture, which is a fine example of solidarity and burden-sharing among countries," said UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller.

The group, consisting of 44 Eritreans, two Ethiopians and five people of other nationalities mainly from North Africa includes 10 women and a 2-year-old child.

A UNHCR staff member boarded the boat on Wednesday and with the help of an interpreter interviewed those rescued. Although further individual interviews are required at a later stage, UNHCR believes that most of the people in this group are persons of concern to the office.

"This episode shows that in situations such as this, it is possible to find solutions which take into account the different concerns of states and individuals," said Feller. "And in those types of situations, UNHCR can play a constructive role when persons within our mandate responsibilities are involved."

Feller commended the captain and crew of the "Francisco Catalina" for rescuing a group of people whose lives were definitely in danger.

"We hope that their exemplary actions will send a signal to other crews and ships facing similar situations about the imperative of preserving human life and humanitarian principles," she said.