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Three boat tragedies in five days on the Mediterranean – scores feared dead

Briefing notes

Three boat tragedies in five days on the Mediterranean – scores feared dead

26 August 2014 Also available in:

The past few days have been the deadliest this year on the Mediterranean for people making irregular crossings to Europe, with at least three vessels having overturned or sunk and more than 300 lives lost. In all, we now believe 1,889 people have perished this year while making such journeys, 1,600 of these since the start of June.

The first and largest of these incidents occurred on Friday when a boat reportedly carrying at least 270 people overturned near Garibouli to the east of Tripoli. Nineteen people, one of them a woman, survived. The Libyan coastguard has since recovered the bodies of 100 others, including five children under the age of five and seven women, but the remaining passengers are feared drowned. According to survivors' reports, the boat was packed full and more people were pushed on board before they departed. According to accounts, the boat suddenly flipped trapping the people on the lower deck. To support the search and recovery operation, the Libyan coastguard has requested body bags, equipment, medical help and manpower.

In a second incident on the evening of Saturday, 23 August, a damaged rubber dinghy was recovered by the Italian Navy 20 miles from Libyan territorial waters. Seventy-three people were rescued, and 18 bodies recovered. Ten people are believed still missing. The passengers were mainly from Mali, Cote D'Ivoire, Guinea and Sudan. The dinghy was already partially deflated when spotted by an Italian search and rescue aircraft and life rafts were dropped to people who had fallen into the water.

In a third incident, on Sunday evening, 24 August, a fishing boat carrying roughly 400 people capsized north of the Libyan coast in bad weather conditions. The Italian navy and coastguard, in a joint operation with a nearby merchant ship, rescued 364 people. So far 24 bodies have been recovered and more are feared dead. The exact number of missing is not yet confirmed, while survivors and deceased will be disembarked in Sicily today.

The main departure country for Europe is Libya, where the worsening security situation has fostered the growth of people smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to decide to risk the sea rather than remain in a zone of conflict. UNHCR's Tripoli office receives daily calls from refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable people expressing fear for their lives and making desperate requests for food, water, medicine and relocation. Those who choose to leave for Italy are taking longer and riskier journeys through new ports of departure such as Benghazi.

Many of those risking their lives at sea in their attempt to find safety in Europe are refugees fleeing war, conflict, violence and persecution. This dramatic situation at Europe's sea borders demands urgent and concerted European action including strengthened search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ensuring that rescue measures are safe and incur minimum risks for those being rescued. UNHCR commends the lifesaving Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) operation the Italian Navy and coastguard is conducting that has saved thousands of lives. As more refugees and migrants risk their lives at sea to reach Europe, mostly Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis, urgent action is needed including in finding legal alternatives to these dangerous journeys.

It is of vital importance that survivors of these tragedies, who often have lost family and friends, be given immediate access to psychological support once they are disembarked. UNHCR has also called for procedures to be put in place to allow for identification of the bodies recovered at sea, providing quick and clear information so that families are not subjected to unnecessary additional suffering.


Estimated deaths and people missing:

In 2011 around 1,500; in 2012 around 500; in 2013 over 600 and so far in 2014 over 1,880.

Estimated arrivals:

In 2011 some 69,000; in 2012 some 22,500; in 2013 some 60,000; so far, in 2014 124,380.

Breakdown sea arrivals 2014:

Italy = 108,172 as of 24 August.

Greece = 14,800 people were apprehended (not necessarily rescued) on the Greek-Turkish sea borders as of end of July.

Spain = some 1,100 people, this includes sea arrivals to the mainland, Balearic Islands, as well as to Ceuta and Melilla as end of June.

Malta = 308 as of 22 July 2014.

(NOTE - Data for Italy as of 24 August. Greece data end of July, Spain as end of June and Malta 22 July). As many as 14,000 children arrived in Italy in the first seven months of 2014, of which 8,600 were unaccompanied or separated from their family.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Melissa Fleming on mobile +41 79 557 9122
  • In Geneva, Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011
  • In Tunis (Libya ops), Dunnapar Fern Tilakamonkul on mobile +216 58 335 123
  • In Rome, Carlotta Sami on mobile +39 335 679 4746