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News comment by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on anniversary of Lampedusa shipwreck

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News comment by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on anniversary of Lampedusa shipwreck

3 October 2019
Italy. Boat tragedy in Lampedusa
Asylum seekers in Sicily mourn 368 refugees and migrants who died in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, on 3 October 2013.

Today in Lampedusa, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency is joining with civil society, local and national authorities, survivors of the shipwreck, and well-wishers from Italy to mark the National Day of Remembrance and Reception, established by law in 2016 to honour the 368 refugees and migrants who died in the shipwreck off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 and all others who have lost their lives during the sea crossing.

The number of people attempting sea crossings to Europe has dropped sharply in recent years, particularly along the Central Mediterranean route. At the same time, proportionately the number of lives being lost has risen. Earlier this week, we passed the tragic milestone of more than 1,000 people dying at sea in 2019, the majority of those on the route between Libya and Europe. Since the start of 2014, more than 15,000 people have perished on the Central Mediterranean trying to reach safety.

We can, and must, do better.

UNHCR reiterates its view that full search and rescue capacity urgently needs to be restored in the Mediterranean. This should include a return to the seas of an EU State search and rescue operation.  Aerial assets can provide much needed support, but they will never be able to pull anybody in distress out of the water. All States in the Mediterranean basin must uphold their responsibilities for ensuring people are rescued and disembarked swiftly, with saving lives as the core priority.

It is time to thank and acknowledge our NGO partners, who over the last few years have played a crucial role in ensuring the death toll was not even higher. When they reach land after rescuing people at sea, their boats should not be seized and their crews should not be arrested. Their efforts should be praised, not criminalised nor stigmatised.

UNHCR welcomes the recent discussions among States on establishing a regional approach to disembarking people rescued at sea. We should remember that rescuing people means getting them out of the water and to dry land in a place of safety. We hope the upcoming Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on 8 October will see further progress, in the spirit of responsibility-sharing and solidarity.

At the same time, efforts are needed to address the root causes of why people move, including strengthened support for countries of asylum and transit, and renewed efforts to broker and sustain peace. 

Lastly, we need renewed understanding that in its current violent predicament Libya is not safe place for returning people rescued at sea. Since April, intensifying violence has worsened an already volatile security situation. Until there is a dramatic change in the situation, Libya cannot be considered as a place of safety for disembarking people rescued at sea.

Three months on from the airstrike on Tajoura detention centre, which killed more than fifty refugees and migrants being held inside, people rescued and intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard continue to be returned to Libya and routinely detained inside detention centres, where they face terrible conditions, appalling human rights abuses and the rising threat of being caught up in the hostilities. UNHCR continues to call for the closure of all detention centres. The Ministry of Interior decree on 1 August instructing the closure of three detention centres is a positive step forward, which must now be effectively implemented.