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February 14, 2011

UN: Smugglers Taking Advantage Of Tunisian Migrants

United Nations and international agencies are working to manage the recent influx of thousands of Tunisians into the small Italian island of Lampedusa. The agencies are warning migrants to beware of smugglers waiting to take advantage of them.

The Italian government reports more than 5,200 people have arrived in Lampedusa since mid-January, with the vast majority arriving during the past few days.  

The UN refugee agency says most of the migrants are young men.  But, it notes at least 20 women and more than 200 minors, many unaccompanied, also have arrived.

UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, says all of Europe and other parts of the world are bracing for a significant movement of people from the Middle East.  She says many economic migrants and asylum seekers are likely to flee in the near future given the turmoil and toppling of governments in the region.

She warns these desperate people will be fair game for people waiting to profit from their fear and misery.

“Obviously, smugglers’ business is seeing big opportunities to exploit the situation.  As said in Tunisia, we are very concerned.  We are hearing the smugglers are not only hanging out at the ports waiting for people to come, but they are actually moving inland and seeking out people falsely advertising what they could offer, what kind of futures they could offer to young Tunisians frustrated and wishing to move on,” she said.  

Smugglers are making huge profits.  They reportedly are charging the Tunisians about $1,800 to get to Italy.  Although the journey is short, high seas and bad weather can make it perilous.  The UNHCR says it has received unconfirmed reports that at least four people have drowned.  

It is believed most of the people fleeing Tunisia are doing so for economic reasons.  But, Fleming says among them are people who probably have good reason to seek asylum and they should receive a fair hearing. “We have been critical about Europe - that it depends very much on where you land, whether you get a fair hearing.  And, so we continue to urge that Europe harmonize its asylum procedures, so that everyone who arrives on Europe’s shores or borders does have the chance to seek asylum, if they feel that they have the right to,” she said.  

Fleming notes it is very possible some of the Tunisians fleeing and seeking asylum were part of the previous regime and may have a legitimate fear of persecution.

The UNHCR welcomes the Italian government’s stated commitment that it will provide access to asylum procedures for those who are seeking international protection.  The agency urges other European countries to show solidarity with Italy during this difficult period.