Syria, Iraq, Boko Haram and Libya keep pushing refugees north

Migrants die of hypothermia off Lampedusa in desperate crossing

A 54-year-old Yazidi woman tells UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie of her ordeal after being kidnapped by militants in northern Iraq. She was recently released with other older women, but her daughter is still being held. The woman’s husband died in the Iran-Iraq war 34 years ago.  (Photo: UNHCR / A. McConnell)
A 54-year-old Yazidi woman tells UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie of her ordeal after being kidnapped by militants in northern Iraq. She was recently released with other older women, but her daughter is still being held. The woman’s husband died in the Iran-Iraq war 34 years ago. (Photo: UNHCR / A. McConnell)

29 sub-Saharan Africans died of hypothermia in severe winter conditions on Monday, in a tragedy marking an ominous and early start for 2015 to the Mediterranean “human smuggling season”.

The victims were members of a group of 105 immigrants picked up by the Italian Coast Guard off Lampedusa.

“What happened shows the necessity of life-saving operations in the Mediterranean,” said William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organisation for Migration. “Bigger ships, like those used in the Mare Nostrum operation, could have easily rescued these migrants.”

Italy’s Mare Nostrum was killed off last year, replaced by an EU operation, Triton, which does not match it. The migrants had been saved by Italian patrol boats which could not accommodate them all below decks and the hypothermia set in because of the long time it took for the craft to make land.

The UN refugee agency on Tuesday called on the European Union to beef up search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said UNHCR was both deeply saddened by the news, and concerned about the manner of the deaths – “all but seven of which appear to have occurred on board the rescue vessel, with people dying of hypothermia,” he said.

“While we applaud all involved in the rescue effort – which took place in high seas and poor weather conditions and resulted in 106 lives being saved – this is an example of why it was felt important in October 2013, following tragedies that occurred then, to underline the need for a much more effective and improved rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to cope with the scale of the problem,” he added.

The boat was intercepted 100 miles off the Italian coast, in international waters, an area where the European Union’s Triton border protection force does not operate, with all rescue operations in the area therefore being carried out by the Italian Coast Guard.

Significantly higher crossings

Edwards said that the number of refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats in the first few weeks of this year was “significantly higher” compared to the same period last year. In January alone, 3,528 arrivals were reported in Italy, compared to 2,171 in January last year. Including the lives lost on Monday, 50 deaths have been recorded compared to 12 by this point last year. 

“Additionally worrying is that, with Monday’s incident, there are indications that more people were attempting to reach Italy last night. As well as the dinghy carrying over 100 people, nine other people were recovered from two other near-empty dinghies [off Libya]. The fate of the others believed to have been aboard these boats is not known,” Edwards said.

Although the 3,528 migrants crossing the Med last month represented a drop from the number of arrivals registered in December (6,732), IOM officials in Rome note that these figures are very unusual for the month of January. Last year, during the same period, migrant arrivals were 2,171, while in 2013 they were just 217.

These deaths, along with nearly 200 others in waters off Africa, Turkey, Cuba and the Arabian Peninsula mark one of the deadliest beginnings of any year in recent times, in terms of worldwide fatalities of migrants.

By comparison, IOM reported just 41 deaths at this point in 2014 – a year when over 5,000 migrants perished worldwide. January and February traditionally are slow months on migrant routes, which grow more active as spring, and calmer seas, approach.

Syrians escaping through Libya

The weather conditions were extremely difficult – Sea Force 7 with 25 foot waves – when two small units of the Coast Guard approached the migrants’ inflatable. Many of the migrants, all of them African, were in extremely poor physical condition, due to exhaustion and exposure, and died soon after being picked up.

The survivors were transferred to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they are receiving medical treatment. IOM staff are now also on the island to provide assistance.

Last month Libya – where unrest and political instability are rampant – was the main departure point. The main country of origin of the migrants is still Syria (764), followed by Gambia (451), Mali (436), Senegal (428), Somalia (405) and Eritrea (171).

While many Syrians arrived at the beginning of January from Turkey on the cargo ship “Ezadeen”, many others arrived from Libya as well. According to testimonies gathered by IOM officials, many Syrians travel to Libya through Sudan, which they reach by plane from Turkey.

The route through Algeria – previously used as one of the main transit countries to Libya – is not available any more, after the Algerian authorities imposed a visa requirement on all Syrians trying to enter the country.  

The route by sea from Turkey has also apparently been stopped. In January, the few cargo ships that tried to leave for Europe were blocked by the Turkish authorities after their departure.

Many Syrians are therefore stuck in the southern Turkish port of Mersin waiting to embark to Italy, while some reports suggest that an increasing number of Syrians are now trying to reach Europe through Greece.

“The wars and the difficult geo-political conditions in the region suggest that we can expect the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to continue for some time,” said Federico Soda, IOM Chief of Mission in Italy.

“The boat arrivals in Europe are the result of many deteriorating situations, including the Syrian War, the Libyan crisis, the presence of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the crisis in Iraq.

“What happened on Monday,” he added, “is further proof that sea crossings may be fatal. The Italian Coast Guard carried out a very brave rescue operation, far from the Italian coast, in rough seas. Unfortunately their vessels were too small to provide the necessary emergency assistance on board to people who were rescued in very bad physical condition, some barely alive.”

Soda insisted Europe must “be ready to assist those who are risking their lives at sea, by expanding the geographical limit of action of the EU’s Triton operation, and to find possible alternatives to those migrants who do not have any choice but to leave their country.

“This last tragedy proves how important Mare Nostrum was as a life-saving operation. The Mediterranean must be patrolled with the necessary means and resources for both security and rescue-at-sea operations, and Europe should react in a more efficient and better resourced way to such a humanitarian emergency,” he added.

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