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January 30, 2012

Risking Death to Reach Safety in Europe

by Joe DeCapua

The Mediterranean Sea was a deadliest stretch of water in 2011for refugees and migrants. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while fleeing Africa for Europe.

UNHCR spokesperson Sybella Wilkes says the actual number of deaths may be much higher. She says the figure is just an estimate and many boats may have sunk and gone unreported.

“By all accounts it was a terrible year. Basically what happened was with the regimes collapsing in Tunisia and Libya this reopened up routes to Europe. But it meant that some of the most vulnerable people in the world were basically taken in by smugglers and put in the most life threatening of situations,” she said.

The smugglers on the Mediterranean differ in their methods than those on the Gulf of Aden. In the gulf, they often rob, kill or throw Ethiopian and Somali refugees overboard en route to Yemen. Wilkes explains what’s been happening on the Mediterranean.

“What we heard was that the smugglers were not actually going on the boats themselves. What they were doing was gathering groups of refugees and migrants that wanted to travel and then they were obliging them to skipper the boats themselves. So, we saw in a number of situations these boats getting terribly lost, running out of water. In some cases, even the passengers turning on each other and in addition in unseaworthy vessels,” she said.

Seeking a new home

The UNHCR estimated more than 58,000 refugees and migrants from Africa arrived in Europe in 2011.

Wilkes said, “Of that number, the vast majority, about 56,000, arrived in Italy and the rest arrived in Greece and Malta by Sea. There was quite a high number that came across the land border to Greece, about 55,000 people.”

So far in 2012, UNHCR says three boats have attempted to make the crossing from Libya, despite high seas and bad weather. One of the boats, carrying 55 people, reported engine problems on January 14 and went missing. Since then, Libyan naval officials say the bodies of 15 Somalis washed ashore last week, including 12 women, two men and a baby girl.

“Certainly the most recent arrivals it’s been very high numbers of Somalis. According to our own guidelines, all of these people should automatically be considered to be refugees because of the current situation in Somalia. So these are clearly very, very vulnerable people. The majority are women and children trying to make this terrible journey,” said Wilkes.

Somalis in Libya tell UNHCR they face widespread discrimination. They and other Africans say reaching Europe is a necessity.

“For refugees from Somalia, from Eritrea, in the vast majority of cases it’s simply not an option for them to go back home. So, this is where they’re pursuing the option of applying for asylum and hoping to find a new home,” she said.

Those who do arrive in Europe are met by UNHCR and European humanitarian workers. The U.N. agency says it welcomes efforts by Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities to rescue boats in distress. It also calls on captains of ships in the Mediterranean to be on the lookout for boats carrying refugees.