Category Archives: Asylem Seekers in Europe

Desperate journeys: Persecuted Hazara flee Afghanistan

November 01, 2015 | Aljazeera

Facing discrimination and a lack of opportunity, ethnic Hazara are among those landing on the Greek island of Lesbos.

At least 16 people drowned and dozens went missing last week after overcrowded boats sank [Kevin Kusmez/Al Jazeera]

Lesbos, Greece – The smuggler camp where Milad was waiting is ideally situated as a launching point to the Greek island of Lesbos. The island spreads out invitingly on the horizon with nothing between the camp and the Greek shore but 10km of open sea – seemingly within arm’s reach on a clear day.

Smugglers loaded inflatable black dinghies, three per hour, with refugees far beyond any recommended capacity and sped across the straits under the cover of darkness. This year alone, more than 450,000 refugees have landed in Greece in this manner, with thousands arriving on Lesbos each day.

The journey is often deadly. Last Wednesday at least 16 people drowned and dozens went missing after their overcrowded vessels sank. More than 100 people have died this year attempting the Turkey-to-Greece sea voyage.

On this particular day, there were only a few people preparing to make the final lunge to Europe. An hour before, the Turkish gendarmerie and coastguard coordinated a raid on the camp, detaining those who didn’t run in time.

What few boats remained had been slashed by the Turkish authorities to prevent anyone from making an attempt. Life jackets were piled up under trees by the dozens; they too had been slashed during the raid.

“When they came, we ran and hid. The border police boat came from over there,” Milad said, motioning to the narrow stretch of open beach.

Life vests damaged during a coastguard raid lie discarded under a tree at the refugee launching point on the Turkish coast [Kevin Kusmez/Al Jazeera]

The people who had managed to avoid detention – the Palestinian, Syrian, and Afghan refugees – were all scared, exhausted, and uncertain about what to do next. But despite the risk, the refugees eventually returned “to find something to eat”.

Despite his warm demeanour and eagerness to practise his nearly impeccable English, Milad, a 19-year-old Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, was hesitant to reveal any information about himself – who he is, where he came from.

Standing in a hillside olive grove-turned-smuggler camp in Turkey’s northwest in the cool stillness of the late afternoon, Milad finally opened up about his experiences that had made him so reluctant to even reveal his name.

His story is complex. The Hazara are a Persian-speaking Shia ethnic group who live predominantly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They are a widely persecuted community because of their religion and ethnic differences. Even among other Shia groups their Asian features are often used as a pretext to deny them rights as “Mongol” invaders.

They face violence not only from the Taliban and the Islamic State  of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but also institutional hostility from other ethnic groups and decades of discriminatory practises  in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Until the 1970s, Afghan law barred Hazara  from holding office, entering university, or holding any position of national authority. Laws were little better under the Taliban.

Under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration – and by extension the new Ashraf Ghani-led government – the Hazara found an ally who promulgated an end to sectarian and ethnic discrimination.

In the 2010 elections, they achieved disproportionately large gains – in Afghanistan’s lower house, they earned 20 percent of seats  despite being an estimated nine percent of the population, and saw their ethnicity well-represented in Karzai’s administrative appointments.

With an unparalleled voting rate of about 85  percent and an emphasis on the importance of education, the Hazara have become a political force in Afghanistan punching well above their weight.

But those successes have been seen as coming at the expense of other groups – notably the more numerous and powerful ethnic Pashtun and Tajik – and have had a part in inviting a renewed cycle of violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The community began to fear that whatever legal protections the Hazara enjoyed are collapsing with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. 

This has led hundreds of thousands of Hazara to make the treacherous journey from their homeland to seek refuge in Europe.

Young Hazara refugees often travel to Europe alone to escape persecution and help support families left behind [Kevin Kusmez/Al Jazeera]

Educated, smart, and driven, Milad typifies the Hazara along the smuggler routes in Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans.

Many are fleeing the crushing poverty that accompanies the extreme persecution they face at home. But, almost universally, the Hazara making the journey to Europe are all young, single men seeking an education.

An ethnic quota on the government, army, and school systems that was meant to more evenly distribute appointments in universities and government has instead made the Hazara victims of their own success.

Despite doing well academically, Milad said no school would take him past grade 11. “The places are for Pashtuns and Tajiks only,” he said.

For many Hazara, leaving Afghanistan is a family decision. The poverty endemic to the Hazara means there is usually only enough money available in a family to send one family member – the one most likely to succeed in the journey to Europe – usually the eldest son.

At the port of Lesbos, Mohammed Reza reflected on the difficulties he had overcome to successfully arrive on European soil. “All of my family agreed I should come here,” said the 18-year-old.

His family, living as refugees in Iran, face continuous discrimination both from the government and other refugees and decided to send him to Europe for everyone’s eventual benefit.

Immaculately dressed in a smart button-down and Ray-Bans, 18-year-old Reza, recounted his ordeal that is typical for refugees who arrive on Lesbos.

Muhamad Reza said his family urged him to migrate to Europe [Kevin Kusmez/Al Jazeera]

“From Tehran to the Iran-Turkey border, we came with a pick-up truck. The capacity of this car is 10 – and it is for sheep or animals, but we were 25 or 26 people,” Reza recalled. The group then climbed for 20 hours over a mountain to arrive in Turkey where smugglers arranged for the boat.

“The capacity of that boat was 25 to 30 people. We were 49 in that boat… Our ship filled with water. We lost our engine [when] the water and fuel mixed together,” Reza explained.

The Turkish police saw their stranded boat but did not rescue them as they were already in Greek waters.

“We waved flags, shined lights, made noise, but they didn’t care,” said Reza. The people eventually decided to row with their hands and, luckily, were able to reach land after several hours.

Ali, another young Hazara who arrived on Lesbos, explained why he had taken the dangerous journey to Europe.

“My family doesn’t know that I’m here… I told them that I was going to another province for one month. They don’t know that I’m in Europe now. When I get to my final country, I’ll call them and tell them,” Ali said.

Ali said he wanted to leave because of the entrenched hatred towards his people. “It’s all politics. They can’t accept our humanity. They think that the Hazara aren’t Muslim. This isn’t true. When a person achieves his or her goal, they try to slander them by calling them Hazara.”

In a country where their very name is a slur, few Hazara see a future for themselves or their children in Afghanistan.

And, despite having crossed the threshold into the European Union, few of the Hazara expressed elation, but simply relief – and even then, it is often quickly put into check with the acknowledgement that their journey is not yet over.

Ali and his companions feel lucky to have arrived in Lesbos [Kevin Kusmez/Al Jazeera]

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The Next Refugee Crisis: Afghanistan

October 21, 2015 | The New York Times

WASHINGTON — With the war in Afghanistan heating up, thousands of Afghan refugees are fleeing their country. But Iran and Pakistan, which house most of the Afghan refugees from previous cycles of violence, are increasingly unwelcoming. So the new exodus has begun to flow toward Europe, already inundated with Syria’s refugees.

Yet these Afghans have attracted little attention from Western policy makers; they do not seem to recognize the Afghans’ desperation, and the challenges their flight poses for Afghanistan, its neighbors and Europe. For Afghans, it is a recurring nightmare. Like previous exoduses going back to the 1970s, this one is stripping the country of precisely the professionals who are vital to its future as a modern state.

President Obama has an opportunity to change that on Thursday by putting the issue high on his agenda, and calling international attention to it, when he hosts Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in Washington.

The new surge of refugees began with the Taliban’s offensive this year, and intensified after fighting reached populated areas like Kunduz. Last month, employees at Afghanistan’s passport agency said they were issuing an average of 2,000 passports daily — triple the number of six months ago.

In recent decades, most Afghan refugees have wound up in Pakistan, which now hosts nearly three million. But refugees there complain that this year, officials have been forcing them to return home. The International Organization for Migration says 90,000 Pakistan-based Afghans did just that since January. Now the government refuses to extend identity cards for 1.5 million refugees, many of whom have been in Pakistan for decades, when their permits expire at year’s end.

Iran, too, has been deporting refugees. One reason is fear that Afghans with ties to the drug trade will compound Iran’s own drug-use problems.

Deportation can be a harsh sentence. Some returnees end up in United Nations camps near Jalalabad, a stronghold for former Taliban militants who joined the Islamic State. The danger may be worst for ethnic Hazaras; they are Shiite Muslims, and many fled slaughter by the Taliban.

Afghans cannot expect much help from their own government. One official American report says the State Department stopped funding a training program for Afghanistan’s refugee and repatriation ministry last year after finding the ministry corrupt and dysfunctional.

Helping Afghan refugees is not an easy issue for Pakistani officials, who already deal with a million internally displaced Pakistanis fleeing conflict in their own border areas.

So the Afghan exodus increasingly looks to Europe as its destination, after a perilous trek across Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean.

According to United Nations and European estimates, more than 20 percent of the roughly 500,000 people who have arrived this year via the Mediterranean have been Afghans.

The flow poses a serious challenge for Europe, which is already experiencing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II and needs no further scapegoats for its anti-immigration demagogues to attack.

So the world must acknowledge the plain fact that Afghanistan’s refugees need help. Their own government, beleaguered by war and its own dysfunction, is not up for the task, and its two largest neighbors are increasingly indifferent to their plight.

It is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to voluntarily accept more Afghan refugees. Still, it should better help those already there. Mr. Obama should press Mr. Sharif to extend the identity cards about to expire. He should urge a more gradual and humane repatriation process. And he should assure Mr. Sharif that Americans remain committed to financial support for international aid programs that assist Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran — programs now under budgetary pressure.

Iran, which houses the second-largest Afghan refugee population, has extended the visas of 450,000 Afghans. Yet Afghans there also report forced deportations and other bad treatment. According to one recent report, Iranian border policemen shot and killed seven Afghans trying to enter the country. These policies must end.

As for the Western countries, the European nations whose troops took part in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan should ensure that Afghans are included in any European Union quotas that distribute refugees among member states. And Washington should expedite special visas for those Afghans who worked for the United States government or military and say that their lives are endangered. In September, at least 13,000 Afghans and Iraqis with that status were still waiting.

And, if security can be assured, international aid groups should accelerate the creation of safe zones within pacified areas in the country, where the United Nations says the total internally displaced population numbers nearly a million. These people need incentives to stay in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbors should band together to help. Bordering countries in Central Asia, along with Russia, China and Iran, all need more stability in Afghanistan and fear the specter of heavy refugee flows into their countries; they should pool funds to support the formation of permanent safe areas inside Afghanistan, in places like Bamian Province that still enjoy relative stability.

Given the lack of quick fixes for Afghanistan’s violence, corruption and economic distress, safe areas may be the best possible incentive for Afghans to remain in their country. It is only a stopgap, but one that might help keep a dangerous crisis in check.


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Judge blocks deportation flight for rejected Afghan asylum-seekers

April 25, 2015 | the guardian

Charter flight due to depart on Tuesday night cancelled after warning by Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation that 80% of country is not safe to return to.

Afghan security personnel at the scene of a suicide attack in Jalalabad. A high court judicial review is due to take place on whether deportations to Afghanistan remain safe in view of the worsening security situation

Afghan security personnel at the scene of a suicide attack in Jalalabad. A high court judicial review is due to take place on whether deportations to Afghanistan remain safe in view of the worsening security situation Photograph: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

A charter flight which was due to depart on Tuesday night with dozens of Afghan asylum-seekers facing removal from Britain has been cancelled on the orders of an appeal court judge.

Lady Justice Rafferty blocked the flight ahead of a high court judicial review due on Wednesday on whether deportations to parts of Afghanistan remain safe in view of the deteriorating security situation.

The decision to postpone the charter flight of 56 rejected Afghan asylum-seekers, which was due to leave at 11.30pm on Tuesday, follows warnings to European countries by the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation that 80% of the country was not safe to send people back to.

It also follows a separate ruling by a high court judge ordering the Home Office to arrange for a deported migrant family to be returned to Britain from Nigeria.

In an unusual step an immigration judge, Mr Justice Cranston, 10 days ago ordered the Home Office to find the mother and her five-year-old son and bring them back to Britain by Thursday.

He said in the “special circumstances” of the case the home secretary had failed to have regard for the best interests of the child, known only as RA, as a primary consideration in sending him back to Nigeria with his 45-year-old mother.

The judge said the Home Office had adopted a “careful and proactive” approach to the child’s interests in contacting the school and involving the [UK Border Agency’s] children’s champion and the independent family returns panel [which advises the Home Office on meeting welfare needs of children in families to be removed].

But he said they had not taken into account the implications of his mother’s degenerating mental health and the likely consequences for the child of sending them back to Nigeria together.

A Home Office attempt to overturn the ruling demanding the return of the mother and son from Nigeria was rejected at an appeal court hearing on Wednesday. “The tribunal was fully entitled to take the decision it did,” said the judge. The pair are due to arrive in London on a flight from Nigeria on Thursday.

The Home Office confirmed that the scheduled charter flight of Afghan deportees had not left on Tuesday night but refused to comment further on the case.

Lawyers for the Afghan deportees were expected to argue at a judicial review hearing on Wednesday that Britain could not safely return deportees to Afghanistan due to the security situation, which has deteriorated since allied forces started pulling out of the country.

They claim that nowhere outside of Kabul could be considered safe enough to send people back to and the Afghan capital did not have the infrastructure to look after vulnerable people who have been deported from Europe. The legal challenge is effectively pressing for the official Foreign Office country guidance for Afghanistan to be rewritten.


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The real winners of Greece’s elections: refugees?

January 28, 2015 | IRIN

ATHENS, 26 January 2015 (IRIN) – Beyond all the talk of debt, austerity and welfare payments lies a less-hyped but far-reaching consequence of Greece’s election bombshell: a dramatically more welcoming policy to migrants and asylum seekers.

The left-wing Syriza party, which trounced the anti-immigration New Democracy party in yesterday’s elections and holds 149 seats in the 300-seat parliament, has pledged to open Greece’s borders and increase support for migrants already inside the country.

“Syriza takes a strong stand against the demonizing of immigrants and undemocratic measures like concentration camps and border walls,” the party’s head of migration policy, Vasiliki Katrivanou, said after the vote.

“We will take steps to improve so called “ghetto areas” in benefit of everyone living there: Greeks and immigrants,” she added. “We consider our win at the polls a victory for all Greeks and all migrants.”

Matthaios Tsimitakis, a Greek journalist and political analyst, said he expected a major shift in government policy.

“The previous government was based on the right-wing ideology that dominated politics…Syriza is moving in a different direction. Immigrants are not a threat to national security; they are victims of international wars. They need integration to become productive members of society and not a burden.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently nearly44,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, in addition to 3,500 recognized refugees. According to the Greek Council of Refugees, the total number of Syrians entering Greece surpassed 30,000 in 2014.

The influx is growing rapidly: UNHCR said 43,500 people were apprehended by Greek authorities at the Greek-Turkish borders in 2014, a 300 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The country had a 19 percent acceptance rate for asylum seekers in the final quarter of 2014, far lower than the European Union (EU) of 48 percent.

Syriza is set to immediately address the backlog of asylum cases while providing protection for the most vulnerable of asylum seekers.

Pushing back on ‘pushbacks’

The Syriza government has also vowed to curb security forces’ alleged practiceof forcing migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey back across the land and marine borders.

The previous administration denied such claims, but UNHCR has recorded asylum seekers being sent back to Turkey, boats of migrants ignored by the Greek coastguard despite distress calls, and physical violence by law enforcement personnel.

A Greek tragedy
Ahmed, a refugee from Syria, has made numerous unenviable decisions since fleeing Damascus, including taking a treacherous journey by sea to Europe.

His four children, aged between four and 11, were shaped by the civil war destroying their country. “I used to pretend it was a game, when the bombs were falling, instead of crying. Soon we began to know the difference between the different types of weapons,” explains eight-year-old Rusul.

Their story is far too common – according to Save the Children, one in three Syrian children who have fled the conflict haveendured physical harm by being “hit, kicked, or shot at.”

After fleeing Syria, the family travelled to Egypt via Lebanon but found themselves unwelcome. With few options left, they fled to Libya, opting for the dangerous sea voyage to Italy. But when their boat was close to Malta, a commercial vessel discovered them stranded at sea and dropped them off in Greece. It was their third attempt at reaching Europe.

“Of course I never want[ed] to risk the life of my children. My entire struggle has been for their future. But how can I leave them behind on their own when bombs are falling?”

Having finally arrived in Greece to apply for asylum, Ahmed said he received almost no support due to tightening anti-migration policies. Stranded in Athens for over a year, he and his family live an almost invisible existence, confined to a clandestine location due to constant police raids and in a crime-riddled community of Athens that has been grappling with its own socio-economic woes.

As their six-month deportation order has expired, they are now in an even more precarious situation in terms of their rights to apply for asylum. With meagre finances, Ahmed awaits an opportunity to leave Greece through Macedonia by foot.

Tighter border controls have pushed smugglers to take ever more extreme measures. According to the International Organization for Migration, last year at least 4,077 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe – many heading for Greece.

Syriza MPs have been at the forefront of questioning coastguard authorities alleged to be pushing back migrants at sea, with the party’s leadership publicly accusing Greek border patrol of being culpable for the boat tragedies on the Aegean Sea and frequently calling for investigations.

When asylum seekers and migrants arrive in Greece, the majority are taken to detention centers. Upon their release, the majority are given a deportation order giving them only a limited amount of time to return to their home countries.

Elektra Koutra, an immigration and human rights lawyer based in the capital Athens, has helped secure protection and asylum for such families with minors, especially from Syria in recent years. She says asylum seekers do not understand the legal repercussions of their deportation orders and often stay beyond the expiration.

“One of the children I represented saw someone die during his journey and experienced high levels of stress while on his own, yet he was given a deportation order and no support,” she explained.

Dublin trouble

One other key issue is the Dublin agreement, which Syriza has called to be renegotiated.

The agreement, signed in 1990, stipulates that asylum seekers in the EU must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in – rather than being able to travel to other European states first. As such, a disproportionate percentage of cases fall upon the shoulders of southern European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain that are natural frontiers to migration.

Greek politicians have long claimed that the country, which has seen its economy shrink by nearly a quarter in five years, cannot cope with the asylum seekers.

“The problem with the EU system of asylum, especially the Dublin agreement, is that it is based on a flawed notion that all member states are able to provide the same level of protection to refugees,” Koutra said.

While Syriza may want to reform the Dublin agreement, there appears to be little appetite in northern Europe. As such, the party may well seek to galvanise political support in neighbouring southern European states.

Koutra warned that such changes were unlikely in the short-term. “It will require calling for special support in processing asylum cases and relocating asylum seekers to other member states based on the 2001 EU Directive on Displacement,” she said. The directive allows for the voluntary transfer of refugees between EU states.

Syriza’s task appears mammoth. With the Greek economy still in tatters, addressing the needs of thousands of refugees, while at the same garnering support from EU members who are already lending the country its economic lifeline, will certainly test the prowess of the coming government.

Yet for thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, their election might just be a chink in fortress Europe.


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Dozens dead as asylum seeker boat carrying 250 capsizes between Italy and Malta

October 12, 2013

Rescue operation after asylum seeker boat capsizesPHOTO: Survivors of the boat capsize scramble onto a life raft off the Italian coast. (Armed Forces of Malta)

Dozens of asylum seekers, including children, died when a boat carrying about 250 people sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, just over a week after a similar tragedy killed more than 300.

Malta PM Joseph Muscat said at least 27 migrants were dead after the heavily loaded boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, about 100 kilometres south of Lampedusa and 110km from Malta.

Italian news agency Ansa said about 50 bodies, including about 10 children, had been pulled from the sea.

“Operations to recover the bodies are ongoing,” Mr Muscat said.

About 150 survivors have already been picked up by a Maltese ship, the prime minister said.

The Italian navy has rescued around 50 survivors, and more rescue boats and helicopters have been sent to the site.

The Maltese navy swiftly dispatched rescue ships and helicopters and diverted commercial vessels to the area.

Italy sent two naval vessels and helicopters carrying inflatable life rafts.

“The operation is in progress. The navigational conditions are difficult, with strong wind,” a Maltese navy spokesman said.

An Italian helicopter carrying about 10 surviving children landed on Lampedusa, where hundreds of asylum seekers are already seeking refuge in a seriously overcrowded reception centre.

European Union commissioner for home affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said she was following the rescue operations “with sadness and anxiety” and praised Italy and Malta for their swift response.

“These new horrible events are happening while we still have the shocking images of the tragedy in Lampedusa in our minds,” she said, adding that the latest disaster highlighted the need for expanded search and rescue operations “to better detect and assist boats in distress”.

The Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta called the latest tragedy “a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency” after speaking with Mr Muscat by phone.

“This is not just another wake-up call for Europe. This is the time for action,” Mr Muscat said.

“Italy and Malta cannot be left all alone, this is a European problem.”

Boat capsized when occupants tried to get attention of military aircraft

The asylum seekers in the latest disaster alerted the authorities using a satellite phone when their boat got into difficulty in Maltese waters.

The boat capsized after those aboard attempted to catch the attention of a military aircraft flying overhead by gathering at one end of the vessel, the Maltese navy said.

On Friday morning, Italian divers found another body from the refugee shipwreck last week off the coast of Lampedusa, raising the death toll in that tragedy to 312.

Only 155 survivors were rescued out of an estimated 500 people, most of them Eritreans and Somalis, on the boat which departed from Libya.

The disaster has shown up the EU’s asylum policy, which has been criticised for being overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe.

EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled by activists and local residents when he visited Lampedusa on Tuesday.

The remote island is Italy’s southernmost point and closer to the African continent than to the rest of the country.

Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the thousands that are washing up on its shores every month, and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.

Immigration charities estimate that between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 32,000 asylum seekers have arrived in southern Italy and Malta this year alone, with around two-thirds of them filing requests for asylum.

Earlier on Friday, at least 500 more migrants in at least three separate boats arrived or were rescued on the way to different areas of Sicily.

Most migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, but this year many are fleeing the civil war in Syria or political turmoil in Egypt and other parts of North Africa.

Many are drawn by hopes of finding work in Europe and often do not stay in Italy.

12 dead in boat capsize off Egypt

Just hours earlier, at least 12 asylum seekers died when their boat capsized off Egypt, near the port of Alexandria.

At least 116 people were rescued, according to a security official.

Those on board the boat were mainly Syrian and Palestinian, thought to be trying to reach Europe.


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Italy mourns after scores of African migrants die in boat sinking off island of Lampedusa

October 04, 2013

Lampedusa migrant boat sinking

Rescued migrants arrive onboard a coastguard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa.

Italy has declared a national day of mourning after a boat packed with African migrants caught fire and sank off the island of Lampedusa, killing at least 130 people.

The boat had set sail from Libya, a route thousands of migrants take each year to try and reach the European Union.

Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano says the disaster occurred when the boat’s motor stopped working and the vessel began to take on water.

He says people on board burned a sheet to attract the attention of rescuers, starting a fire on board.

“Once the fire started, there was a concern about the boat sinking and everyone moved to one side, causing the boat to go down,” he told a news conference.

The 20-metre vessel, believed to be carrying around 500 people, sank no more than one kilometre from shore.

Scores of people have been rescued and brought to shore, but so too have many bodies.

Authorities have confirmed the death of at least 93 people, and coast guard divers have counted 40 bodies inside the sunken vessel.

Two pregnant women are reported to be among the victims, as well as three children, while hundreds more remain missing.

Laurens Jolles, a spokesman for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Rome, says a rescue operation is continuing.

“There seems to have been about 500 people onboard which is a huge, huge number, also compared to the last few years,” Mr Jolles said.

“I think at the end of the day we might end up with hundreds of persons dead. Only 151 had been saved up to now of the total number of 500.

“They seem to be all Eritreans, and as I said it’s ongoing.”

Number of migrant vessels increasing

The island of Lampedusa is closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland and each year thousands of migrants from Libya and other parts of north Africa try to reach its shores.

But the crossing, often made in overcrowded boats, is dangerous.

Last year, almost 500 people were reported dead or missing on the crossing from Tunisia to Italy, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Italy has pressed the European Union for more help to fight the crisis, which it says concerns the whole bloc.

“This is not an Italian drama, this is a European drama,” Mr Alfano said.

This is not an Italian drama, this is a European drama.

Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano


“Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy.”

Italian president Giorgio Napolitano has also called for action by the European Union to stem “a succession of massacres of innocent people”.

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Judith Sunderland agrees the European Union needs to do more to help migrant vessels in distress in the Mediterranean.

“In 2012 the numbers were far, far lower: only between 10 and 15,000 people crossed the Mediterranean,” she said.

“Whereas this year it’s anywhere between 25 and 30,000, in fact if not over 30,000 who have actually reached Italy and Malta by sea.”

Syrians fleeing civil war have added to the numbers.

Pope Francis, who visited the island in July on his first papal trip outside Rome, says he feels “great pain” for the “many victims of the latest tragic shipwreck today off Lampedusa”.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘shame’,” he said in unscripted remarks after a speech in the Vatican.

“Let us unite our strengths so that such tragedies never happen again.”

The stream of migrants is a humanitarian and political problem for the Italian government.

Migrants who arrive in Italy are allowed to apply for asylum. Many are ordered to leave the country but slip away to become illegal immigrants in Italy or elsewhere in the European Union.


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Police raid Munich camp of migrants seeking asylum in Germany

July 01, 2013


After a failed attempt at mediation, a camp of asylum seekers in Munich has been raided by authorities. More than 40 men and women had been on a hunger strike in the compound.

The asylum seekers, mostly from Africa and Asia, gave up food – and water – last week to draw attention to their struggle. Police perhaps drew much more attention to them, clearing out the camp on Sunday beginning at 5 a.m, local time.

A city spokesman said that group had been split up and that the 44 patients had been dispersed to a dozen hospitals for treatment for any effects of the hunger strike.

A visit by regional politicians last week had been rebuffed. “The authorities have shown that nothing was done to create trust,” said Ashkan Khorasani, who has acted as the spokesman for the asylum seekers.

After Munich Mayor Christian Ude, a Social Democrat, met with Horst Seehofer, the conservative premier of the state of Bavaria, authorities decided to raid the camp, officially out of fears that the hunger strike was potentially self-destructive.

mkg/jlw (dpa, epd)


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