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UNHCR increasingly concerned about Mediterranean ship impasse

Briefing notes

UNHCR increasingly concerned about Mediterranean ship impasse

22 October 2004

UNHCR is growing increasingly concerned about an international impasse that has developed in the Mediterranean involving 13 asylum seekers who are stuck aboard a commercial ship, currently moored in international waters about 15 miles off Malta.

The German-owned container vessel, the "Lydia Oldendorff," docked in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro 13 days ago (9 October). Upon arrival, 13 asylum seekers were found hiding in a container that had been unloaded from the ship. They are all male and say they are Turkish Kurds. Two of them are boys, believed to be 13 and 15 years old. After being discovered in the container, it seems they were taken to a police station in Gioia Tauro. There it is alleged they tried to claim asylum but were unable to do so. The police then put the men back on the container ship, which subsequently proceeded to Malta.

Although the ship was permitted to dock in Valetta on 14 October, and offloaded some cargo, the asylum seekers were not allowed ashore. The ship's next destination was Turkey - the men's country of origin. Returning an asylum seeker to his country of origin without hearing his or her claim is against the fundamental principles of international refugee law and may amount to refoulement.

Since 15 October, the boat has been sitting in international waters off Malta. The 13 men have made three attempts to request asylum via faxes to the Maltese authorities, but to no avail. Apparently, each lost day is costing the company a substantial amount of money in penalties for delayed delivery. UNHCR's office in Berlin was contacted by the ship's owners last weekend, and since then UNHCR has been engaged in a dialogue with the authorities in both Italy and Malta in an attempt to end the impasse.

There is, under EU law, a clear path mapped out to resolve this situation within which Italy would appear to have responsibility for assessing the 13 asylum claims. Under the terms of the EU Dublin Regulation, they can be disembarked in Malta and then transferred to Italy. Alternatively, the owner has said that he is prepared to send his ship back to Italy, providing he receives clear assurances within the next 36 hours from the Italian authorities that the 13 asylum seekers will this time be disembarked.

The owner has flown to Malta and spent last night on the ship. UNHCR also currently has a staff member on Malta who is closely monitoring the situation, in addition to negotiating with the authorities. The 13 asylum seekers, the 16 crew and the four extra security guards flown in from England at the owner's expense are living in very overcrowded conditions in the ship's limited living quarters. According to the owner, the situation on board is extremely tense, and has worsened overnight. At least one of the asylum seekers is reported to have attempted suicide after they were denied permission to disembark in Malta.

UNHCR is urging Malta, and in particular Italy, to act in accordance with their responsibilities under international law without further delay.