EU solution to Italy migrant deaths needed – UNHCR

A spokewoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says a recent incident that resulted in the deaths of 29 African migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean demonstrated once again that the European Union needed a “proper” solution to save more lives.

AT SEA, ITALY (FEBRUARY 9, 2015) (COASTGUARD) – The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on Tuesday (February 10) said a clear increase in the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe and the deaths that it resulted in meant the European Union needed to do more to save lives.

Twenty-nine migrants died of hypothermia aboard Italian coast guard vessels on Monday (February 9) after being picked up from a boat adrift near Libya, reigniting criticism of the Italian government’s decision to end a full-scale search-and rescue mission last year.

Speaking in reference to the incident, spokeswoman for the UNHCR Carlotta Sami said further deaths should be expected as more people attempted the perilous crossing.

“On Sunday the Italian Coastguard in Lampedusa received a distress call from a satellite phone. It was coming from a dinghy with many refugees and migrants that have left from Libya, they were Sub-Saharan African,” Sami said.

“They reached them after many hours, because the conditions of the sea were really rough, and when the people were brought on board, 29 of them have died. But they died of hypothermia, they were freezing, and it took so many hours – hours and hours to reach the Island of Lampedusa,” she added.

Two patrol boats picked up 105 people late on Sunday (February 8) from an inflatable boat drifting in extreme sea conditions, with waves as high as 8 metres (26 feet) and temperatures just a few degrees above zero, the coast guard said in a statement.

The migrants who died spent 18 hours on the deck of one of the vessels taking them to the Italian island of Lampedusa, buffeted by high winds and spray.

“This is a strong reminder to what happened in 2013 when more than 600 people have died. So this is a strong reminder because at that time everybody was saying that a strong search and rescue operations was needed to cope with an increasing influx of migrants and refugees,” Sami said, referring to the tragedy in 2013 which saw the launch of Italy’s search-and-rescue mission.

“This is the situation now, we need a proper, proper solution from the European Union to save save lives in the Mediterranean,” she said.

Mare Nostrum, Italy’s search-and-rescue mission, was closed last year due to the cost of the mission. Since then no navy ships capable of keeping large numbers of migrants below deck have patrolled the waters near the Libyan coast.

UNHCR said figures of people trying to make the perilous journey to Europe had risen by 60 percent in 2015.

In January alone, 3,528 arrivals were reported in Italy, compared to 2,171 in January of 2014, the UNHCR said. 50 deaths have been recorded so far this year, compared to 12 at this point last year, the UNHCR said.

“They are Syrians, they are Eritreans, they are Africans coming from countries where there is war. So yes, we are already assisting to an increase the first months of 2015,” Sami said.

“We have at least a 30 percent increase in comparison with the same period last year,” she added.

Now the European Union runs a border control operation called Triton, with fewer ships and a much smaller area of operations.

Civil war in Syria and anarchy in Libya swelled the number of people crossing the Mediterranean last year. Many paid smugglers $1,000-$2,000 to travel.

Syrians currently are the largest single group arriving in Italy, accounting for around 22 percent of the total.