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UNHCR shocked by accounts of survivors from boat tragedy in Mediterranean

Briefing notes

UNHCR shocked by accounts of survivors from boat tragedy in Mediterranean

21 August 2009

We are shocked by the accounts we heard yesterday from five Eritreans who are allegedly the only survivors from a boat that set out from Libya over 20 days ago. They report that they were stranded at sea without fuel, water or food.

According to the survivors around 80 people, mostly from Eritrea, boarded a small boat in Tripoli to attempt to reach Italy. After three days at sea the boat ran out of fuel. A few days later water and food ran out. As thirst and hunger set in people started dying, one by one, as the boat drifted in the sea. As passengers died, the survivors threw them into the sea.

According to the survivors a fishing boat came across the five survivors and offered them some bread and water, but then left them. On August 20th the Guardia di Finanza (Italian customs guard) found the boat. The survivors are in a very poor health and were taken to Italy for treatment.

Apart from the shocking tragedy this represents it gives UNHCR cause for concern that these people report being passed by many vessels without any assistance being offered. This is contrary to the long-standing maritime tradition of rescue at sea which has been under threat and is increasingly being eroded.

UNHCR would be very concerned if the hardening of government policies towards boat people has the effect of discouraging ship masters from continuing to honour their international maritime obligations.