UNHCR applauds Italy's treatment of boatpeople, but expresses concern over tone of political debate
GENEVA, March 22 (UNHCR) - The U.N. refugee agency congratulated Italian authorities Friday for their handling of the latest boat incident involving refugees, but said it was increasingly worried about the inflammatory tone of the debate over asylum and immigration policy in Italy.
"We're concerned that this could have serious repercussions for refugee protection, resulting in overly restrictive measures that go beyond grappling with the issue of people-smuggling and, in effect, make it impossible for refugees fleeing war or persecution to reach safety," said Erika Feller, UNHCR's Director of International Protection.
"Deliberate exaggeration which tarnishes all asylum-seekers, including the refugees among them, is something that UNHCR has noted is spreading in a number of countries," she added.
"This is a very alarming trend. Fortunately, some senior members of the government as well as the local authorities and population in Sicily reacted in a humanitarian spirit."
The Italian Navy last week intercepted the freighter "Monica" and towed it to Sicily with 928 mostly Kurdish men, women and children aboard. The refugees were subsequently transferred to a temporary camp in Bari on the mainland.
A UNHCR team that visited the temporary reception centre on Wednesday reported that the reception and initial assistance of the boatpeople was proceeding smoothly and in a well-organised fashion. By Thursday 158 people, including 82 children, had passed through the initial identification process, which is expected to continue until early next week. All those identified so far are believed to have requested asylum.
A team from the Central Eligibility Commission, which includes a UNHCR staff member as well as government officials, is due to start processing asylum claims as early as next week.
The arrival of the boat people in Italy comes just ahead of a UNHCR-organised roundtable on rescue at sea next week in Lisbon. The two-day meeting will include experts drawn from governments, NGOs, and the academic world as well as key international bodies such as the International Maritime Organisation and representatives of the shipping industry.
The meeting, which is to take place on March 25 and 26, will look at ways of ensuring that the time-honoured maritime tradition of rescue at sea is preserved while simultaneously exploring ways to solve some of the dilemmas that have arisen in recent years on issues such as the smuggling and trafficking of refugees and migrants.
According to UNHCR officials, the meeting, co-hosted by a Washington-based think-tank, the Migration Policy Institute, will work towards filling in some of the gaps that exist in the current legal framework governing rescues at sea, including the establishment of clear criteria for determining the appropriate port of call for disembarkation after people have been rescued.
The number of boats carrying would-be refugees and migrants appears to be on the increase, both in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world. Hundreds if not thousands of people are believed to have perished at sea in recent years in overcrowded and often unseaworthy boats. Many of the tragedies go unrecorded, and many bodies that are washed up on coastlines or plucked from the waves are never identified.
Just two weeks ago, more than 60 people are believed to have drowned when their overloaded boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.