Migration | UNHCR calls for legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys

UN agency joins Maltese Bishops in expressing concern at rising death toll in Mediterranean Sea following latest incidents involving hundreds of asylum seekers

The UN’s refugee agency today said that it is deeply saddened at a rising death toll from boat accidents in the Mediterranean Sea as increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees make the journey on unseaworthy boats, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers.

While welcoming the rescue operations in recent hours which rescued hundreds, UNHCR urged governments around the world to “provide legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, ensuring desperate people in need of refuge can seek and find protection and asylum.”

These alternatives, the agency said, “could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and facilitated access to family reunification. Governments are also asked to resist punitive or deterrent measures such as detention for people seeking safety.”

Meanwhile, in a seperate statement issued today, the Maltese bishops expressed the church's concern at the recent deaths in the Mediterraneancalled on government and civil society including church organisations to continue working in favour of human life and the safeguarding of fundamental human rights.

Yesterday, at least 17 people drowned after a boat sank in international waters, some 160 km south of Lampedusa, Italy and around 80 km north-west of Tripoli, Libya.   

The dead include 12 women, three children and two men.  

UNHCR estimates that over 170 people died at sea trying to reach Europe so far in 2014, including those who lost their lives in waters off Greece, Libya, Italy and in international waters.

Although UNHCR praised the rescue operations by Italian and Libyan authorities and the cooperation of private vessels without which the death toll would have been undoubtedly higher, it insisted that search and rescue operations are further strengthened, especially in waters that have a high number of incidents.   

Yesterday’s tragedy follows several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight, in which 121 people are believed to have died in three separate boat accidents.

The Libyan coast guard rescued 134 people. The survivors received medical assistance from UNHCR in cooperation with the International Medical Corps, and the Libyan Coast Guard.  

UNHCR also provided clothing, mattresses and other relief items to the survivors.   

Another shipwreck took place off Libya on 6 May when a boat carrying 130 people capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast.  

Some of the 53 surviving passengers told UNHCR that the smugglers pushed them onto the boat and set off even though the boat was damaged in the middle.  

77 people are believed to have drowned in this incident, including four women.  

Yesterday the coastguard has recovered 44 bodies believed tobe from the same shipwreck; most washed ashore in the last few days.

The people on board were from Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal.

The previous week, on 2 May, the Libyan coast guard rescued 80 people (Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian nationals) after their unseaworthy boat started leaking, some five km off the coast. Another four people drowned in the incident.

Two days earlier (30 April), the Libyan coast guard found the wreckage of another boat off the coast of Tripoli.

The sole survivor, in a critical condition, was treated at a government hospital; the remaining 40 passengers (all from Somalia) had drowned.

Shipwreck victims and survivors include people fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands and the risks they take on these perilous sea journeys reflect the limited safe options available in Libya and other contexts.   

UNHCR has launched an information campaign in association with the Libyan coast guard, NGOs, UN partners and asylum-seekers to inform people of the real risks involved with voyages by sea.

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