UNHCR helps boat people in Libya as search for survivors continues

News Stories, 1 April 2009

© UNHCR
Some of the rescued boat people at the special centre in Grabouli, 200 kilometres from Tripoli.

TRIPOLI, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, April 1 (UNHCR) UN refugee agency staff in Tripoli were on Wednesday helping hundreds of boat people rescued off the coast of Libya earlier this week as news reports said at least 100 people are believed to have drowned when another boat sank.

The Libyan coastguard rescued some 350 people, possibly including asylum seekers, after finding their boat adrift on Sunday in the Al Bouri oilfield, located about 30 kilometres off the coast of Libya. Those on board said they were trying to reach Europe.

Another boat that set sail for Europe from Libya at the weekend later sank in the Mediterranean. Libyan authorities were searching on Wednesday for survivors, after finding at least 100 bodies.

UNHCR and its partners, the International Organization for Peace, Care and Relief (IOPCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have sent two teams to provide humanitarian assistance to survivors from the boat towed back to Tripoli harbour on Tuesday.

The passengers, who are being held at special centres in the towns of Tripoli and Grabouli, said they had paid smugglers hundreds of dollars per person for passage to Italy's Lampedusa Island. They include Egyptians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Syrians and Tunisians.

One group of people from the same country said they had arrived in Tripoli two months earlier by air and waited for a chance to make the risky crossing. A group of Somalis said they entered Libya from Sudan and Chad after fleeing their conflict-torn country.

The UN refugee agency is providing the survivors with clothing, milk, water, and special items for children. Some of the survivors needed medical attention.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday expressed great sorrow at the 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.

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. In Malta almost 100 percent of those who arrived via sea applied for asylum.