250 feared dead or missing after 2 shipwrecks in Mediterranean

more than 1,300 died in Mediterranean since beginning of the year

Syrian refugees were recently rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the crew of the Italian ship Grecale, March 2014. Photo by UNHCR/Alfredo D’Amato

GENEVA 10 May 2017: Some 250 people are feared dead or missing following two shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean, according to the UN refugee agency.

”In the last 24 hours, we have received alarming information on two new shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean,” said UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly in a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, reported Wam.

”The first shipwreck took place on Friday night, when a rubber dinghy sank after several hours of sailing with 132 people on board. Some 50 people were rescued and disembarked in Pozzallo (Sicily) on Sunday, 7 May. Some 82 people are feared dead or missing.

Another shipwreck took place off the coast of Libya on Sunday, 7 May. According to one of our partners, the International Medical Corps, a woman and six men were rescued by the Libyan Coast Guards. Some 163 people are feared dead or missing during this particular incident,”Pouilly explained.

”This brings the total number of people believed to have died or disappeared while trying to cross from North Africa to Italy to more than 1,300 since the beginning of the year. So far in 2017, over 43,000 migrants and asylum seekers have used the Central Mediterranean route to reach Italy,” the UNHCR spokesperson added.

As stressed by High Commissioner Grandi on Sunday, rescue at sea operations, including by the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, and by NGOs are of crucial importance. There is also an urgent need to address the root causes which lead people to move, as well as to offer credible alternatives to these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection, including accessible and safe ways to reach Europe such as family reunification, relocation and resettlement.

Urgent action required to end people smuggling

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has called on European and other donor countries to the UN Refugee Agency to act quickly so as to address people-smuggling incidents like those of the Mediterranean crossings over the weekend.

In a press statement, Grandi said, “Since Friday, we have seen over 6,000 people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy, bringing the total this year to over 43,000. These massive arrivals, and the fact that more than 1,150 people have either disappeared or lost their lives while trying to reach Europe since the beginning of the year, show that rescue at sea is as crucial as ever.”

According to the High Commissioner, the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy, which is by far the one currently most frequently used by asylum seekers and migrants to cross into Europe, has proven to be particularly deadly. Since the beginning of 2017, one person out of 35 has died on the sea journey from Libya to Italy. And over the past four days alone, 75 people have lost their lives.

“Saving lives must be the top priority for all and, in light of the recent increase in arrivals, I urge further efforts to rescue people along this dangerous route. This is a matter of life or death which appeals to our most basic sense of humanity and should not be called into question,” he added.

Grandi went on to express his shock at the violence used by some smugglers, referencing the “merciless killing of young man a few days ago” as reported to UNHCR teams by survivors.

Increasing Numbers

The increasing numbers of passengers on board vessels used by traffickers, with an average of 100 to 150 people, are also alarming and the main cause of shipwrecks, and risks are increased by the worsening quality of vessels and the increasing use of rubber boats instead of wooden ones.

“More and more often, we find out that there are no satellite phones on these vessels, making rescue efforts even more difficult, as migrants and asylum seekers are unable to call for help and more difficult to locate,” Grandi continued.

He spoke of the urgent need to address the root causes which lead people to move, adding that credible alternatives need to be placed to avoid these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection, including accessible and safe ways to reach Europe such as family reunification, relocation and resettlement.

“Action is needed before people are caught and exposed to horrendous abuses at the hands of smugglers in Libya and other transit countries, and before they board unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean.

“This also means redoubling efforts to solve conflicts, especially in Africa, and using development resources much more strategically, to reduce poverty, to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to support countries hosting large numbers of refugees, as well as transit countries.

“This requires coordinated policies and action by European and other donor countries,” Grandi concluded.

By Angel Chan