More than 200 boat people feared drowned in separate incidents

News Stories, 14 December 2007

© UNHCR/A.Di Loreto
A UNHCR protection officer talks to newly arrived boat people on a beach in Lampedusa, Italy earlier this year.

GENEVA, December 14 (UNHCR) The deadly drama of migrants and refugees dying at sea as they attempt to cross waterways around the world was underscored last week by a number of tragedies which left more than 200 people dead or missing off Turkey, the Canary Islands and Yemen.

Last Saturday, 51 people drowned when a boat carrying irregular migrants from Turkey to Greece sank in rough weather off the Turkish coast close to Seferihisar, a town 50 kilometres south-west of Izmir. Another 35 people are still missing and are presumed to have also drowned.

Last weekend, the Spanish media reported that up to 90 migrants were missing at sea after two separate incidents involving large canoes attempting to reach the Canary Islands from Senegal and from Western Sahara.

In Yemen, where 27,000 people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians, have arrived by boat this year, UNHCR staff reported 31 people drowned or missing between December 5 and last Wednesday. This brought the overall toll in these incidents to 207 in one week.

Tens of thousands of boat people risk their lives each year in the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean and off the coast of West Africa. Many are migrants seeking a better life, but some are also refugees fleeing persecution and violence.

More than 200 participants from governments and non-governmental organizations, plus experts, took part in a two-day UNHCR-organized dialogue in Geneva on the issue. They voiced support for a more coherent, comprehensive and integrated approach to ensure the protection of refugees among migrants now on the move worldwide.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, opening the meeting, said: "We want to promote measures that will save the lives of people who are in distress on the high seas and ensure their safe and timely disembarkation."

At a session devoted to rescue at sea, the UN refugee agency urged participants to do everything possible to avoid tragedies such as those seen recently in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Aden.

UNHCR and its partners, including the International Maritime Organization, are promoting measures that will save those who are in distress on the high seas and ensure their safe and timely disembarkation.

Much of the dialogue, the first in an annual series examining key refugee-related issues in an open and frank spirit, focused on how to better ensure that refugees forced to flee violence and persecution are able to find the protection they need as governments try to grapple with growing migratory movements on their borders. Participants said they appreciated UNHCR's initiative on this issue and welcomed the opportunity to voice and discuss their concerns.

By William Spindler in Geneva