UNHCR shocked by boat deaths off Italian island
GENEVA - The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is shocked and saddened by the reported deaths of dozens of people after a boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa late Thursday.
Although information about the identity of the victims remains sketchy, UNHCR is concerned that some of the boat's occupants may well have been refugees. In recent years, increasing numbers of refugees - along with migrants moving for economic reasons - have been falling into the hands of ruthless and well-organized people-smuggling gangs.
According to initial media reports from Lampedusa, this latest tragedy may have resulted in as many as 60 deaths, including a number of women and children. The Lampedusa tragedy is the most recent in a long list of such accidents. Initial reports suggest that the small boat was crammed with people - an increasingly common occurrence as the smugglers try to maximize their financial returns without showing any concern for the safety of the passengers.
The number of deaths of people trying to enter Europe, irrespective of what proportion are refugees, has reached catastrophic levels. More than 2,400 deaths have been catalogued by NGO researchers over the past few years - and this most likely represents a fraction of the total, with many more deaths going unrecorded.
UNHCR believes that the Lampedusa tragedy underlines the extreme importance of the current European Union harmonization process of asylum and migration policies and practices, due to be completed by 2004. A harmonized approach that allows refugees to access safety in Europe more easily, and also produces a more realistic and open-minded approach to other forms of legal migration, is essential if more tragedies like the one off Lampedusa are to be avoided.
The current approach of almost zero legal immigration, and an ever-increasing raft of restrictive measures aimed at asylum-seekers, simply helps to push refugees and immigrants into the clutches of people smugglers, who care little whether they live or die.