UN agency urges Europe to act to stop rising refugee, migrant deaths at sea

Onboard an Italian ship, a Syrian father holds his one-year-old son as they wait to be checked by doctors. They were rescued in the middle of the Mediterranean. Photo: UNHCR/A. D'Amato

24 July 2014 – In the wake of recent tragedies, the United Nations refugee agency today called on European countries to take urgent action to stop the rising number of deaths among refugees and migrants attempting to reach the continent by sea.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 260 people have died or been reported missing in the past 10 days after attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe. The total number of deaths for this year amounts to more than 800 people, compared with 600 in 2013 and 500 in 2012.

“The death of 260 people in less than 10 days, in the most horrifying circumstances, is evidence that the Mediterranean crisis is intensifying” said High Commissioner for Refugees Antònio Guterres.

Mr. Guterres stressed the need for European countries to provide assistance to those who have been victims of smuggling and risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea. He called on all governments to strengthen rescue operations, to provide swift access to asylum procedures for those in need of protection, and legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossing.

“Europeans need to take urgent action to stop this catastrophe [from] getting worse in the second half of the 2014,” he added.

UNHCR said over 75,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014. Among those, more than 800 individuals, seeking safe haven in Europe, have lost their lives. Most of them were fleeing from Eritrea, Syria and Mali, and many from North Africa, principally Libya.

The journey to reach the coasts of Europe could take up to four days depending on sea, boat and weather conditions. Refugees and migrants, in the hand of smugglers, have to deal with unsafe conditions. After traveling in unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, packed into a few metres of space, without food, water or life jackets, their journey often ends in tragedies.

The individuals who have been rescued and survived have reported disturbing incidents of mass drownings, suffocations and a suspected multiple stabbing.

UNHCR expressed its gratitude for all the efforts made by European countries, in particular by the Italian authorities, to rescue people whose vessels have been shipwrecked in the Mediterranean.

It also underlined the need for European nations to provide additional and better facilities to support those who have been rescued. It is necessary, said the agency, to identify longer-term solutions for refugees based on humanitarian needs, including facilitated access to family reunification.


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