UNHCR saddened at high seas accidents as Mediterranean claims more victims

Yesterday's tragedy follows several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight in which 121 people are believed to have died in three separate boat accidents.

Syrian refugees are rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian navy. UNHCR is concerned about the number of vessels sinking in the attempt to reach Europe.  © UNHCR/A.D'Amato

GENEVA, May 13 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it was deeply saddened at a rising death toll from boat accidents in the Mediterranean Sea this year as increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees make the journey on unseaworthy boats, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva that at least 17 people drowned after a boat sank on Monday in international waters, some 160 kilometres south of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and around 80 km north-west of Tripoli, Libya. The dead included 12 women, three children and two men.

Edwards added that two merchant ships from France and Vanuatu rescued 226 people who later received medical checks from Italian doctors. The French vessel, Bourbon Arcadia, rescued 158 people and the Kehoe Tide from Vanuatu rescued 68 people.

Yesterday's tragedy follows several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight in which 121 people are believed to have died in three separate boat accidents. The Libyan coast guard has rescued 134 people, the UNHCR spokesman said. The survivors receive medical assistance from UNHCR, the International Medical Corps and the Libyan coast guard. UNHCR also provides clothing, mattresses and other relief items.

"The other shipwrecks we know of, include one that took place off Libya around May 6 when a boat carrying 130 people capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast," Edwards said. Some of the 53 survivors told UNHCR that the smugglers set off even though the boat was damaged.

As of Monday, the coast guard had recovered 44 bodies believed to be from the same shipwreck, with a further 33 missing and believed dead. The people on board were from Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

On May 2, the Libyan coast guard rescued 80 people from Eritrean, Ethiopia and Somalia after their boat started leaking. Another four people drowned in the incident. Two days earlier, the Libyan coast guard found the wreckage of another boat off the coast of Tripoli. The sole survivor, in a critical condition, was treated at a government hospital; the remaining 40 passengers - all from Somalia - had drowned.

Shipwreck victims and survivors include people fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands and the risks they take on these sea journeys reflect the limited safe options available in Libya and other contexts. UNHCR has launched an information campaign in association with the Libyan coast guard, NGOs, UN partners and asylum-seekers to inform people of the risks involved with unscheduled voyages by sea.

"UNHCR welcomes the rescue operations by Italian and Libyan authorities and the cooperation of private vessels, without which the death toll would have been undoubtedly higher, but asks that search and rescue operations are further strengthened, especially in waters that have a high number of incidents," Edwards stressed.

"We also urge governments around the world to provide legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, ensuring desperate people in need of refuge can seek and find protection and asylum," he added. These alternatives could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and facilitated access to family reunification. Governments are also asked to resist punitive or deterrent measures such as detention for people seeking safety.

UNHCR estimates that more than 170 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe so far this year, including those who lost their lives off Greece, Libya and Italy and in international waters.