UNHCR warns of further boat tragedy risk on Mediterranean

News Stories, 11 October 2013

© UNHCR/L.Boldrini
Over 30,000 migrants have made the journey to southern Italy by boat so far this year.

GENEVA, October 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has warned that without a collective and comprehensive response to last week's Lampedusa boat tragedy further disasters are inevitable.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva Friday, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the refugee agency welcomed the statements and actions this week by the European Commission and some European states on the need to prevent such tragedies in future. Among those highlighted by Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso earlier this week were the need for strengthened capacity for rescue at sea and better surveillance to track boats.

"All available means must be used to mitigate the root causes of flight in refugee producing countries," said Edwards. "More information needs to be made available about the hazards of irregular sea movements to Europe; there needs to be better gathering and sharing of information about the routes and means that people are taking in flight; and there needs to be improved rescue at sea detection and response." He also stressed the need for better care arrangements for new arrivals and for improved facilities in Lampedusa which suffers from serious overcrowding

In Lampedusa, 311 bodies have so far been recovered from the sea, though there is still no final figure for the total number of people who died in the disaster. Statements from the 156 survivors, said Edwards, suggest that that the bodies of between 50 and 70 people have yet to be found.

"The phenomenon of people travelling on small boats across the Mediterranean to Europe is age old and involves issues of asylum as well as migration," the UNHCR spokesman told reporters. "Those on board the boat that sank off Lampedusa last week were nearly all Eritrean, and many are likely to have been in need of international protection."

Among the survivors are people who had previously been at the Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan and the Mai Aini camp in northern Ethiopia. Anger over the Lampedusa deaths among the population in Mai Aini seems to have been a factor in disturbances there last weekend in which one person was killed, added Edwards.

The UNHCR spokesman said wider responsibility-sharing among European Union member states would help in the processing of asylum claims and in finding lasting solutions for people in need of international protection. It would also facilitate in providing assisted returns for those people determined not to be in need of protection.

"UNHCR stands ready with its NGO partners and IOM to help all States in working towards common solutions to the problems that lie behind last week's accident off Lampedusa," said Edwards.