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UNHCR seeks better rescue mechanisms after Mediterranean drownings


UNHCR seeks better rescue mechanisms after Mediterranean drownings

At least 19 people drown in efforts to escape Libya by boat. UNHCR urges European states to put in place more reliable mechanisms for rescue at sea.
10 May 2011
A group of people who fled Libya arrive on a boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa recently.

GENEVA, May 10 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday lamented the latest drowning deaths of people fleeing Libya by boat and reiterated a call for European nations to urgently improve mechanisms for rescue at sea.

"In addition, we appeal to ship masters for heightened vigilance and for continued adherence to the longstanding maritime obligation of aiding people in distress," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

Reporting on the latest news from the Mediterranean, Fleming said a boat carrying around 600 people had foundered not long after leaving the Libyan capital of Tripoli last Friday. "A senior Somali diplomat in Tripoli has reported that 16 bodies have been recovered, including two babies. But the full death toll is unknown to us," Fleming said, while adding that most of those onboard are believed to have been from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe has till now received less than 2 per cent of the people fleeing Libya to escape the continuing conflict in the North African country. But the number of people risking the boat journey across the Mediterranean to Europe rose at the weekend.

Fleming said that five boats carrying almost 2,400 people, including many women and children, had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Saturday and Sunday. "All five boats needed rescuing by the Italian coastguard and maritime police, with one boat running aground close to the Lampedusa shore. Yesterday three bodies washed ashore, thought to have been passengers from the boat that ran aground," she said.

The number of people who have arrived in Italy and Malta from Libya since the crisis there started in mid-February now stands at 12,360, in a total of some 35 boats (11,230 to Italy and 1,130 to Malta). Prior to Friday's disaster, family members and survivors told UNHCR of boats running into problems, and as many as 800 people are unaccounted for.

Early last month, UNHCR first appealed to European states to urgently put in place more reliable and effective mechanisms for rescue at sea on the Mediterranean. "We reiterate that call today," Fleming said, while also making her call for ship captains to help those in peril on the high seas.

People fleeing Libya are often doing so in unseaworthy and overloaded vessels. "UNHCR urges states, commercial shipping companies and others present in the Mediterranean to consider that all boats leaving Libya for Europe are likely to require assistance," Fleming stressed.