UN refugee agency calls for better rescue measures after boat tragedy off Italy

8 April 2011

After the drowning of more than 200 migrants earlier this week in the Mediterranean Sea, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is calling on the European Union to urgently put in place more reliable measures for rescues at sea.

In the worst such incident in the Mediterranean in recent years, a boat originating in Libya and carrying more than 220 Somalis, Eritreans and Ivorians capsized on Wednesday morning near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Since pro-democracy protests erupted across North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year, large numbers of people – including people fleeing unrest in Tunisia and Libya – have taken to boats to try to reach Europe.

“It is hard to comprehend that at a time when tens of thousands are fleeing the Libyan conflict and pouring across the land borders into Tunisia and Egypt where they enjoy safety and receive shelter and aid, the protection of people fleeing via Libya’s maritime border does not appear to have the same priority,” said Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller.

The seas in front of the Libyan coastline are among the busiest in the Mediterranean, and are even more so now with the large numbers of military and other vessels in the area, says UNHCR.

“A long-standing tradition of saving lives at sea may be at risk if it becomes an issue of contention between States as to who rescues whom. That is why we urgently need a more operational and better functioning search and rescue mechanism,” said Ms. Feller.

“We also appeal to shipmasters to continue to render assistance to those in distress at sea. Any overcrowded boat leaving Libya these days should be considered to be in distress.”

UNHCR notes that Italy and Malta have borne the brunt of the displacement and migration prompted by the recent events in North Africa. Since they are likely to see more arrivals in the coming days, the agency is calling on EU countries to consider taking steps to share the burden.

These could include technical and financial support, as well as the use of the EU temporary protection directive which aims to harmonize temporary protection for displaced people in cases of mass influx on the basis of solidarity between States.

Ms. Feller said that although the temporary protection mechanism has not been used yet, it is important for countries such as Italy and Malta to know that it can count on such support if needed.

UNHCR is also calling on EU and non-EU resettlement countries to offer additional resettlement places for refugees in North Africa.


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UN refugee chief voices deep shock after more than 200 migrants drown off Italy

The head of the United Nations refugee agency expressed deep shock today at the apparent drowning of more than 200 migrants attempting to make their way to Italy from conflict and unrest in North Africa.