UN refugee agency hails crews saving lives at sea, urges coastal States to do more

1 June 2007

Spotlighting the plight of people in distress trying to reach Europe by sea, the United Nations refugee agency today hailed the humanitarian response of some crews while urging Mediterranean States to respond more to calls for help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “understands the challenges posed by the repeated arrivals of mixed groups of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in various Mediterranean countries but emphasizes that the need for assistance to people in distress at sea should remain the first priority,” agency Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva.

She called attention to the plight of at least 53 people of mostly Eritrean origin who went missing more than a week ago between Libya and Malta. The group – including 28 women and 6 children – was last seen by the Maltese armed forces aboard a boat off the south coast of Malta on 21 May.

UNHCR recently received indications that the group might be in Libya and contacted the country’s authorities, but so far has had no success in finding the missing.

Ms. Pagonis hailed the efforts of Italian and Spanish crews who responded to distress calls. While searching for the missing 53, the Italian crew located another group of 27 sub-Saharan nationals who had been clinging to fishing nets attached to a Maltese fishing boat for “three excruciatingly hot days and freezing nights,” she said.

The group had received limited water and fruit from the fishing boat’s crew, but were not allowed access to the vessel. The Italian Navy later rescued them and took them to Lampedusa, where they received assistance and would have access to national screening procedures, the agency said.

In a separate incident on 25 May, the Italian coast guard picked up another group of 52 individuals, including a child and seven women, who had been spotted by a Maltese aircraft but did not send out a distress call, according to UNHCR.

A day later, a Spanish fishing boat rescued 26 people – mainly from Côte d’Ivoire – on a sinking boat about 100 nautical miles from both Libya and Malta and provided them with water, food, blankets and assistance. After their efforts to disembark in Libya and Malta were blocked, they were accepted for disembarkation in Spain, Ms. Pagonis said.

“UNHCR is grateful for the prompt humanitarian response by the Italian and Spanish crews who made the saving of lives their priority and in this context calls on all coastal States to fulfil their international obligation in respect of the law of the sea,” she said, appealing “to governments to strengthen coordination and cooperation in rescue operations to ensure that such incidents do not occur again.”

 

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