26 August 2014 – The past few days have been the deadliest this year for people making irregular crossings on the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe, with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reporting that at least 300 people have died in successive boat tragedies.
“In all, we now believe 1,889 people have perished this year while making such journeys, 1,600 of these since the start of June,” said Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokesperson, telling reporters in Geneva on 26 August 2014 that over the past few days, at least three vessels having overturned or sunk.*
The first and largest of these incidents occurred on Friday when a boat reportedly carrying at least 270 people overturned near Garibouli to the east of Tripoli. Nineteen people, one of them a woman, survived.
“The Libyan coastguard has since recovered the bodies of 100 others, including five children under the age of five and seven women, but the remaining passengers are feared drowned,” said Fleming.
According to survivors’ reports, the boat was packed full and more people were pushed on board before they departed. The boat suddenly flipped trapping the people on the lower deck. To support the search and recovery operation, the Libyan coastguard has requested body bags, equipment, medical help and manpower.
In a second incident on the evening of Saturday, 23 August, a damaged rubber dinghy was recovered by the Italian Navy 20 miles from Libyan territorial waters. Seventy-three people were rescued, and 18 bodies recovered. Ten people are believed still missing. The passengers were mainly from Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sudan.
In a third incident, on Sunday evening, 24 August, a fishing boat carrying roughly 400 people capsized north of the Libyan coast in bad weather conditions. The Italian navy and coastguard, in a joint operation with a nearby merchant ship, rescued 364 people. So far 24 bodies have been recovered and more are feared dead.
The main departure country for Europe is Libya, where the worsening security situation has fostered the growth of people smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to risk the sea rather than remain in a zone of conflict.
“UNHCR’s Tripoli office receives daily calls from refugees, asylum-seekers and other vulnerable people expressing fear for their lives and making desperate requests for food, water, medicine and relocation. Those who choose to leave for Italy are taking longer and riskier journeys through new ports of departure such as Benghazi,” said Fleming.
1,500 people Died Trying to Cross into Europe in 2011
This situation demands urgent and concerted European action including strengthened search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ensuring that rescue measures are safe and incur minimum risks for those being rescued, Ms. Fleming added. As more refugees and migrants risk their lives at sea to reach Europe, mostly Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis, urgent action is needed including in finding legal alternatives to these dangerous journeys.
In 2011 around 1,500 people died trying to cross into Europe; in 2012 around 500; in 2013 over 600 and so far in 2014 over 1,880, according to UNHCR. In 2011 an estimated 69,000 people arrived in Europe; in 2012 some 22,500; in 2013 some 60,000; so far, in 2014 124,380. As of 24 August, the majority of them – 108,172 people – arrived in Italy.
“It is of vital importance that survivors of these tragedies, who often have lost family and friends, be given immediate access to psychological support once they are disembarked. UNHCR has also called for procedures to be put in place to allow for identification of the bodies recovered at sea, providing quick and clear information so that families are not subjected to unnecessary additional suffering,” Fleming added. (*Source: UN Release).
Thousands of Refugees and Asylum-seekers Stranded in Areas Heavily Damaged by Continuous Fighting
On 5 August 2014, as violence escalated in Libya, the United Nations said it was deeply concerned for the safety of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who are currently stranded in areas heavily damaged by the continuous fighting.**
These Eritreans and Somalis in Benghazi, Libya, told UNHCR about their concerns. Many wished to go to Europe. Photo: UNHCR/L. Dobbs
“In Tripoli alone, more than 150 people from Eritrea, Somalia and other countries have phoned our protection hotline seeking help with medicines or a safer place to stay,” UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Ariane Rummery told journalists in Geneva.
“We are also receiving calls from many of the mainly Syrian and Palestinian asylum-seekers and refugees in Benghazi who are in dire need of assistance,” she said, adding that altogether, almost 37,000 people are registered with UNHCR in Tripoli and Benghazi.
She said the security situation is rapidly deteriorating and many see leaving Libya as their only option. Rummery warned that smugglers thrive amid the growing lawlessness, and thousands of desperate people are taking the dangerous sea journey to Europe.
New, More Dangerous Departure Points
Recent violence around Tripoli appears to have moved departure points away from the capital, with more boats now leaving from points to the east such as Al-Khums and Benghazi – “a new and more dangerous departure point as it means a longer journey to Italy.”
Some 77,000 are estimated to have already arrived in Italy by boat from Libya so far this year – a substantial spike in departures compared to this time last year. More than 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean this year, with the latest 128 casualties drowning last week off Al-Khums, about 100 kilometres east of Tripoli.
They held mostly African nationalities and included many women and children. UNHCR is providing medical care and relief items to the 22 survivors of the incident and is continuing to work with its partners on the ground to deliver assistance and advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Rummery expressed concern that not all people seeking safety can cross Libya’s land borders and urged Libyan authorities to relax exit visa restrictions to allow people to leave.
“We are particularly concerned about the welfare of three Syrians and one Palestinian stranded in the no-man’s land between Libya and Egypt. UNHCR is asking Egyptian authorities for access to the group to provide food and water,” she said.
Amidst the ongoing fighting, a newly elected Libyan parliament met for the first time yesterday 4 August 2014), in hopes that the political leaders can bring peace and democracy to the North African nation, which has been embroiled in some of the worst fighting since the 2011 uprising that ousted former leader Muammar al-Qadhafi. (**Source: UN Release).
2014 Human Wrongs Watch