Angelina Jolie and UNHCR chief Guterres shocked at Mediterranean high seas tragedy

News Stories, 6 April 2011

© Franco Lannino/ANSA
A boat arrives in Lampedusa after leaving North Africa. The boat that sank on Wednesday tried to make the same journey.

GENEVA, April 6 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie expressed "deep shock" on Wednesday at the reported drownings of 213 people in rough waters some 60 kilometres off the southern coast of Italy.

According to survivors, the group, including Somalis, Eritreans and Ivorians, set off from Libya three days ago in an attempt to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. They told UNHCR that many women and three children were among the 213 people who are presumed to have drowned when the vessel foundered on Wednesday. The Italian coastguard rescued 47 people, including two women, one of them pregnant.

"These people were refugees twice," Guterres said. "They fled war and persecution in their own countries and now, in their attempt to seek safety in Italy, they tragically lost their lives."

This is particularly disturbing, Guterres said, at a time when UNHCR and other organizations are providing humanitarian aid and refugee protection to people fleeing across the land borders of Libya. "I appeal to all those patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to do everything they can to help vessels in distress."

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who today concluded a two-day trip to Tunisia, said, "Having just spent time with similar families fleeing the violence in Libya, I am deeply saddened by the large loss of life of people who were simply trying to escape war and find refuge. It is all the more devastating knowing that children were on board."

Jolie, who visited Tunisia's border with Libya, added, "It is urgent that we find ways to ensure safe passage out of Libya for the civilians caught in the crossfire."

Libya has traditionally been a transit and destination country for refugees. UNHCR has recognized 8,000 Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali and Eritrean refugees inside Libya. A further 3,000 were seeking asylum while thousands more, who lacked access to UNHCR's office in Tripoli, were believed to be in the country.

People from sub-Saharan Africa seem to be particularly at risk as they are being associated with foreign mercenaries. Many are taking desperate measures to escape.