UN refugee agency deplores deaths of hundreds bound for Europe off Libyan coast

31 March 2009

The United Nations refugee agency today expressed its shock at reports that hundreds of people are missing off the Libyan coast as they sought new lives in Europe, as the smuggling season gets under way in the Mediterranean.

Although details are sketchy, it has been reported that a number of vessels transporting several hundred people set sail for Italy in recent days, with one or more boats having gone down, Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.

Egyptian authorities said that the incident occurred some 30 kilometres of the Libyan coast, with some Egyptian nationals having been rescued and bodies recovered. They also noted that those on board included people from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

High Commissioner António Guterres voiced his great sorrow at the “tragic loss of life,” calling the incident a “tragic example of a global phenomenon in which desperate people take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in search of a better life.”

According to UNHCR in Rome, two boats have arrived in Italy this week: one carrying 244 people in Sicily and one with 219 in the southern island of Lampedusa.

Last year, 36,000 people arrived by sea to the country from North Africa, with 75 per cent of them applying for asylum and roughly half receiving refugee status or protection on other humanitarian grounds.

Mr. Guterres stressed the fruits of globalization have not reach all equally, with money and goods moving ever more freely but with obstacles to the movement of people increasing. As a result, the distinction between economic migrants and bona fide refugees or asylum seekers becomes even more blurred, he said.

This latest incident also underlines the need for stepped up global cooperation for sea rescues, the High Commissioner said.


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