Hundreds risk return to Libya in bid to reach Europe by boat

News Stories, 17 May 2011

© UNHCR/F.Noy
An Italian coastguard vessel, carrying 142 people rescued at sea after fleeing Tripoli, prepares to dock at Lampedusa harbour. Anyone making the sea journey risks their life.

GENEVA, May 17 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that hundreds of displaced people have been crossing back into Libya from Tunisia and Egypt with the intention of boarding boats to reach Europe.

"Among them are refugees, including members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the camps at Choucha near Tunisia's border with Libya," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

UNHCR is in discussions with these communities about the dangers involved in sailing the high seas as well as the risks people take in crossing the Libyan border. In March, UNHCR learnt from the Somali community in Choucha that two Somalis were shot dead in Libya after crossing back from Tunisia.

To date, around 14,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy and Malta from Libya. Of this number, 1,669 arrived on Friday and Saturday. Based on accounts from survivors and family members, more than 1,200 people who set out on boats are unaccounted for since March 25.

UNHCR has met with refugees in Tripoli who are planning to make the perilous sea journey. "They are all aware of the high death toll, but they told us that they feel they have nothing to lose. One Eritrean man told us he would rather die trying to reach safety than continue to live in danger," Fleming said.

Many have been living in Libya for several years; have faced periods of detention, and come from countries like Eritrea and Somalia where safe return is not a possibility.

Based on discussions with people who have arrived in Italy, UNHCR believes that thousands more will attempt to make this journey by sea. The majority have made the voyage in boats that are overcrowded and in poor condition. There is often no qualified skipper or crew to operate the boat.

"UNHCR repeats its call to all vessels on the Mediterranean to consider all boats departing Libya to be in need of assistance, and likely to face a situation of distress at some point in the journey," Fleming said.

The spokesperson also noted that UNHCR hoped to be able to re-establish an international presence in western Libya soon. "In the meantime our national staff and partners are running projects to assist refugees and asylum-seekers," she said.

"We plan to expand this assistance in order to alleviate the hardship faced by many refugees. Many have told us that basic survival is a struggle with the departure of the expatriate population and the collapse of the Libyan economy. "

UNHCR has teams of staff interviewing asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt and Tunisia to assess their claims and, where possible, refer them for resettlement.

But Fleming said that UNHCR had learnt with sadness "that people on track for resettlement, following interviews last year in Libya, lost their lives while trying to reach Europe recently. People in the middle of the resettlement process and vulnerable cases are prioritized in our interview schedule."

UNHCR estimates that 6,000 people will need resettlement from the borders of Egypt and Tunisia in the coming months, as well as 2,000 from Cairo. So far, 11 resettlement countries have offered more than 900 resettlement places. In addition the United States has offered a significant, but unspecified, number of resettlement places.