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Tragedy in the Mediterranean

© Franco Lannino/ANSA

The High Commissioner and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie have expressed deep shock at the drowning of more than 22 people on 6th April in rough waters 60 kilometres off the southern coast of Italy.

According to survivors, the group, including Somalis, Eritreans and Ivorians, set off from Libya three days earlier in an attempt to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. They told UNHCR that many women and three children were among the 213 people who are presumed to have drowned when the vessel foundered. The Italian coastguard rescued 47 people, including two women, one of them pregnant.

"These people were refugees twice," Guterres said. "They fled war and persecution in their own countries and now, in their attempt to seek safety in Italy, they tragically lost their lives."

This is particularly disturbing, Guterres said, at a time when UNHCR and other organisations are providing humanitarian aid and refugee protection to people fleeing across the land borders of Libya. "I appeal to all those patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to do everything they can to help vessels in distress."

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who had concluded a two-day trip to Tunisia’s border with Libya, said, "Having just spent time with similar families fleeing the violence in Libya, I am deeply saddened by the large loss of life of people who were simply trying to escape war and find refuge. It is all the more devastating knowing that children were on board." She added that "It is urgent that we find ways to ensure safe passage out of Libya for the civilians caught in the crossfire."

Libya has traditionally been a transit and destination country for refugees. UNHCR has recognised 8,000 Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali and Eritrean refugees inside Libya. A further 3,000 were seeking asylum while thousands more, who lacked access to UNHCR's office in Tripoli, were believed to be in the country. People from sub-Saharan Africa seem to be particularly at risk because they are being associated with foreign mercenaries, leading many to take desperate measures to escape.