UNHCR helps Italy cope with high seas influx of thousands of Tunisians
GENEVA, February 15 (UNHCR) - Staff from the UN refugee agency are working with the Italian government and other partners to manage a dramatic influx of several thousand Tunisians who have crossed to Italy's Lampedusa Island and the mainland by boat over the past month.
The Italians say more than 5,200 Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean to their territory since mid-January, with the vast majority (4,400) having arrived during the past few days. While most are young men, UNHCR knows of at least 20 women and more than 200 minors, many unaccompanied.
UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and Save the Children Fund are in Lampedusa and several locations in southern Italy working with local authorities to cope with what the government is describing as a humanitarian emergency.
"We appreciate the sensitive approach that has been taken so far, with all actors recognizing that among this mixed group there may be some who need to apply for asylum," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
"From discussions with new arrivals, it is clear that while most are coming in search of employment, others are citing fear of violence and a breakdown of law and order in their home regions," she stressed.
The UN refugee agency is concerned that people smugglers in Tunisia are exploiting youth by promising them a better life in Europe. Although the journey is short, high seas and bad weather can make it perilous. Most of the new arrivals are in good health, but some have arrived soaked through, and suffering exhaustion. UNHCR has received unconfirmed reports that at least four people have drowned.
The large number of people arriving over such a short period has put a significant pressure on Lampedusa, which lies midway between the Tunisian coast and Sicily. A reception centre on the island designed for 800 people is currently holding more than 2,000.
"Following a number of flights to relieve congestion in Lampedusa, we understand that other reception centres in Italy are also reaching capacity," UNHCR's Fleming said, before adding: "We appreciate all efforts being made by the Italian government to provide shelter and assistance for the new arrivals and hope that a solution is found quickly to relieve the pressure on Lampedusa."
The Italian government has stated its commitment to providing access to asylum procedures for those who are seeking international protection. The refugee agency said it welcomed this commitment and urged solidarity with Italy. UNHCR hopes that mechanisms designed to control irregular migration will continue to ensure access to asylum for people in need of protection.