UNHCR shocked by reports of hundreds missing in Mediterranean

News Stories, 31 March 2009

© UNHCR/L.Boldrini
A boat carrying African asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and Italy.

GENEVA, March 31 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency expressed shock and sorrow on Tuesday at reports that hundreds of people trying to reach Europe by sea were missing in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.

Details are still sketchy, but reports indicate a number of vessels carrying several hundred people set sail from the coast of Libya in the direction of Italy over the last few days. At least one boat reportedly went down and hundreds of people aboard are reported missing.

Egyptian authorities said the mishap occurred about 30 kilometres off the Libyan coast and that some Egyptian nationals were rescued. More than 20 bodies have reportedly been recovered to date. Authorities said those aboard included North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans.

This is the beginning of the smuggling season in the Mediterranean. UNHCR's office in Rome reported two boats have arrived in Italy this week one carrying 244 people reached Sicily and another with 219 aboard made it to Lampedusa Island. Last year, more than 36,000 people arrived in Italy by sea from North Africa. Some 75 percent of them applied for asylum and about 50 percent of those received some form of international protection from the Italian authorities.

"This tragic incident illustrates, once again, the dangers faced by people caught in mixed irregular movements of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and elsewhere which every year cost thousands of lives," chief UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

High Commissioner António Guterres on Tuesday expressed his great sorrow at the tragic loss of life. He described the incident as the latest tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life. Those on the move do so for a variety of reasons, including persecution, climate change and environmental degradation, which can in turn generate more poverty and conflict.

"We are seeing it all over the world," Guterres said. "In today's globalized world, money moves freely; goods tend to move more and more freely; but the obstacles to the movement of people are still in place and, to a certain extent, increasing.

"We have more and more people on the move and more and more barriers to their movement, creating a situation in which a large number of the people who cross international borders do so in an irregular way. And when people move in irregular ways, it becomes all the more difficult to distinguish between economic migrants and bona fide refugees or asylum seekers," he added.

The High Commissioner said the incident also underscored the need to increase international cooperation for rescue at sea and warned that the current global economic crisis would also lead to an increase in people going on the move.

By William Spindler in Geneva