At least 10,000 unaccompanied minors reached Malta, Italy by sea in 10 months

UNHCR estimates that, so far in 2014, over 3,000 people have died or are missing at sea

 So far in 2014, over 18,000 children have  arrived to Malta and Italy by sea, including at least 10,000 unaccompanied
So far in 2014, over 18,000 children have arrived to Malta and Italy by sea, including at least 10,000 unaccompanied

Over 18,000 children have arrived to Malta and Italy by sea, including  10,000 unaccompanied minors, figures released by the UNHCR for 2014 reveal.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary since the Lampedusa tragedy where two boats capsized causing the death of more than 600 refugees and migrants.

Just seven days later, a second Lampedusa shipwreck killed 200 migrants, among whom several women and children. The boat capsized in Maltese search and rescue waters on 11 October 2013, with at least 400 people on board. Malta rescued 147 people, Italy picked up another 39, while the other passengers were never found.

On the eve of the Lampedusa disaster anniversary, UNHCR warned that irregular Mediterranean crossings are becoming more deadly.

New data on irregular crossings of the Mediterranean, covering the third quarter of 2014, show an alarming increase in the numbers of people perishing while attempting to make the journey to Europe.

UNHCR is appealing for a joint European action, that is based on solidary, burden-sharing and protection to those fleeing persecution and violence.

In both absolute and percentage terms, the numbers are up substantially, UNHCR reported.

In all, 90,000 people crossed to Europe between 1 July and 30 September and at least 2,200 lost their lives, compared to 75,000 people and 800 deaths for the period between 1 January and 30 June.

“In other words, a person making the journey in the first half of the year faced a 1.06 per cent chance of losing their life, while the odds for someone crossing in the third quarter more than doubled to 2.4 per cent,” UNHCR stated.

In all, 165,000 people have made the crossing so far this year compared to 60,000 for all of 2013 – making 2014 a record year and reflecting the level of desperation among many of those involved.

Italy received over 140,000 arrivals in 2014, at the astonishing pace of 15,650 arrivals per month or 516 arrivals each day. Most of them were rescued at sea under Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation.

UNHCR reiterated its call for Europe to commit more resources for rescue at sea in the Mediterranean and step up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages.

UNHCR said that the collective response needs to maintain a strong capacity to rescue people at sea and increase safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe.

It warned that if Europe fails in these efforts, many more lives will continue to be lost, and incidents such as the disasters off Lampedusa will become more common.

“We are failing to heed the lessons from the terrible events of last October, and more and more refugees are drowning trying to reach safety. EU countries must work together to continue and bolster the vital task – which has been mostly carried out by Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, but also by commercial vessels – of rescuing people at sea,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

During a recent visit to Malta, Guterres lauded Malta’s efforts to help save lives. But as the EU and member states search for a better framework for responding to the worsening situation in the Mediterranean, Guterres insisted that Europe’s response needs to be “a truly collective effort”.

“We don’t have many chances to get this right. Europe’s response needs to be a truly collective effort, one that offers safer ways to find protection while maintaining a strong capacity to rescue people at sea. If it fails, many more lives will be lost at Europe’s doorstep,” Guterres said.

Libya: key factor in increase in crossings

The UNHCR has not identified the exact reasons for the year’s increases both in crossing and deaths are not known. It however has identified one important factor: the situation in Libya.

Many of those making the crossing depart from Libya.There, insecurity has hit vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East hard – prompting many to flee.

“Libya must play its part in ensuring respect for the principles of human rights and international law, because weak law enforcement is allowing people smuggling networks to prosper,” UNHCR said.

Also apparent is that boats and dinghies are often more crowded, with cases of people dying of asphyxiation aboard boats or travelling without life-jackets.

Last month's tragedy off Malta, in which as many as 500 people were killed when their boat was reportedly sunk by smugglers, left only 11 survivors. Those few that survived spent days in the water watching helplessly as family members and friends perished.

Libya’s lack of security was a point raised and emphasised by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat during a UN high-level meeting focusing on Libya. He hit out at what he called the “indifference” of the international community towards the thousands of people making the dangerous crossings.

Half of asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea

Although not all of the people making the journey to Europe are looking for asylum, the third quarter data show that the proportion fleeing war or persecution in their countries is growing. Asylum seekers from two such countries, Syria and Eritrea, have accounted for almost half of those making the crossing since 1 July.

“While this is a fraction only of the global refugee total (some 16.7 million people worldwide, overwhelmingly hosted by countries bordering war zones), it nonetheless represents growth in the refugee caseload,” UNHCR explained.

UNHCR said that alternatives must be urgently found to protect people from the risk of travelling with smugglers as many of those making the crossing have no legal or safe way of reaching Europe.

Such alternatives, UNHCR proposed, could include increased resettlement quotas and access to humanitarian visas for people fleeing war and persecution, as well as joint border management policies involving the EU and North African countries that not only look at border security but also have a clear human rights and refugee component.

UNHCR called on European governments to do more to facilitate family reunification. It proposed that states could establish private sponsorship schemes and use programmes such as student or employment visas to benefit refugees.

"We have to find better ways of allowing these desperate people to find a place of safety. They have gone through dangers and horrific experiences which many of us can only try to imagine," said Guterres.

UNHCR reiterated that these challenges could not be addressed by a few states alone: a joint European response is needed, based on collaboration among states and EU support to ensure additional initial reception facilities, assistance in processing as well as identifying solutions for those in need of international protection.