UNHCR appeals for urgent action as new Mediterranean mid-winter deaths reported

A group of tired, cold and hungry women rest on board Phoenix rescue boat off the coast of Malta, November 2016.
© UNHCR/Giuseppe Carotenuto

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is watching with increasing alarm the situation on the Mediterranean, where over the past few days we have seen two shipwrecks, numerous other rescue incidents, a merchant vessel disembarking rescued individuals to Libya, and reports that the Libyan coast guard itself has been unable to respond to incidents within its designated search and rescue region of the Mediterranean because of shortages of fuel.

As we reported this past weekend, close to 170 lives are believed to have been lost in the two shipwrecks, the first a vessel with 117 people on board that sank off Libya, and the second in waters between Morocco and Spain with 53 on board. Already this year 4,507 people have crossed to Europe by sea, despite bitter cold and great danger.

UNHCR believes it has become urgent for States to take action to reassert effective rescue capacity on the Mediterranean by increasing coordinated multi-state rescue, restoring rapid disembarkation in a place of safety, and lifting impediments to the work of NGO rescue vessels. People who don’t have a valid claim to asylum or other forms of international protection must then swiftly be helped to return home.

At present, the politicking around sea rescues is preventing serious focus on a solution to the problem. Meanwhile lives are being tragically lost. Politicians must stop using human-beings for political point-scoring, and to instead address this as a humanitarian issue, with saving lives the priority. Reducing arrivals cannot be the only barometer for success when people are drowning on Europe’s doorstep.

Of particular concern to us at present is the fate of some 144 rescued refugees and migrants rescued on 20 January by a merchant vessel, the Lady Sham, who last night disembarked in Misrata, Libya under instructions from the Tripoli Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre (JRCC).

In Libya’s current context, where outbreaks of violence and widespread human rights violations prevail, no rescued refugees and migrants should be returned there.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

In Geneva, Charlie Yaxley, [email protected], +41 795 808 702
In Madrid, Maria Jesus Vega, [email protected], +34 670 661 263
In Rome, Carlotta Sami, [email protected], +39 335 679 47 46
In Paris, Céline Schmitt, [email protected], +33 6 23 16 11 78
In London, Matthew Saltmarsh, [email protected], +44(0)7880 230 985
In Libya, Paula Barrachina Esteban, [email protected], +218 91-0017553
In Nicosia, Emilia Strovolidou, [email protected], +357 22 359 057