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UNHCR calls on States to uphold principles of rescue-at-sea and burden sharing

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UNHCR calls on States to uphold principles of rescue-at-sea and burden sharing

8 April 2011

GENEVA - In light of the massive loss of life in the Mediterranean this week in a refugee boat capsizing, UNHCR is calling on the European Union (EU) to urgently put into place more reliable and effective mechanisms for rescue-at-sea. More than 220 Somali, Eritrean and Ivorian refugees drowned early on Wednesday morning when their boat capsized some 39 nautical miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. This is the worst such incident in the Mediterranean in recent years.

"It is hard to comprehend that at a time when tens of thousands are fleeing the Libyan conflict and pouring across the land borders into Tunisia and Egypt where they enjoy safety and receive shelter and aid, the protection of people fleeing via Libya's maritime border does not appear to have the same priority" said Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller.

So far more than 450,000 people have crossed from Libya into neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Algeria, Chad, Sudan, Italy and Malta. However, many more are trapped by the fast-moving conflict in Libya. UNHCR is particularly concerned about refugees and asylum seekers in Misrata and other Libyan towns. As the situation in Libya deteriorates, many may have to consider flight by sea as their only option.

The seas in front of the Libyan coastline are among the busiest in the Mediterranean. In addition, there are now large numbers of military and other vessels in this area.

"A longstanding tradition of saving lives at sea may be at risk if it becomes an issue of contention between states as to who rescues whom. That is why we urgently need a more operational and better functioning search and rescue mechanism," said Feller. "We also appeal to shipmasters to continue to render assistance to those in distress at sea. Any overcrowded boat leaving Libya these days should be considered to be in distress."

Within the EU, Italy and Malta are the two states which have borne the brunt of the displacement and migration prompted by events in northern Africa and are likely to see more arrivals. In light of possible new arrivals from Libya of people who may be in need of international protection UNHCR is calling for active consideration of concrete responsibility and burden sharing measures particularly among EU member countries.

Such measures could include technical and financial support, and the use of the EU Temporary Protection Directive which aims to harmonize temporary protection for displaced people in cases of "mass influx" on the basis of solidarity between member states.

"Although the temporary protection mechanism established by the Directive has not been used yet, it is important for EU countries, namely Italy and Malta in this case, to be reassured that such support and solidarity would be forthcoming should the circumstances so demand" said Feller.

The UN refugee agency is also calling on EU Member States, together with other resettlement countries to offer additional resettlement places for refugees in North Africa, as resettlement is the only durable solution that is feasible for some. UNHCR's recent calls on this front have met with only a limited response.

For media queries, please contact:
In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617
In Lampedusa: Laura Boldrini on mobile +39 33 55 403 194
In Valetta: Fabrizio Ellul on mobile +356 99 69 0081