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No let-up in boat refugees

January 28, 2014

Some 45,000 boat migrants, including thousands of children, made dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean to land in Italy and Malta in 2013, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Image: Reuters

Most were fleeing wars or abuses, said the intergovernmental organization on Tuesday. It listed 11,300 migrants fleeing Syria, 9,800 from Eritrea and 3,200 from Somalia. Among them were 8,300 minors; two-thirds of these were unaccompanied.

The IOM said its 2013 total was a sharp jump from the 13,000 recorded in 2012, but down on the 63,000 recorded in 2011 during armed sectarian conflict in Libya.

The IOM said the "real" tragedies had involved those migrants who had disappeared untraced at sea during capsizes of flimsy, overcrowded boats, which border authorities claim are often operated by smugglers.

Relatives left not knowing fate

These migrants vanished and "simply remain unknown," said Jose Angel Oropeza, IOM's leading coordinator for the Mediterranean based in Rome.

"Numerous relatives of the victims are still waiting to know," Oropeza said, referring to the loss of at least 400 lives in October in shipwrecks off Italy's island of Lampedusa - located near Libya and Tunisia - and off Malta.

Losses over the past 20 years among refugees headed for Italy totaled more than 20,000, the IOM said, including 2,300 in 2011 – the year of the Libya crisis.

The IOM, which works closely with the UN and whose membership includes 155 nations, said landings were continuing off Italy even during Europe's winter months. Last Friday, 204 migrants had been rescued by the Italian navy in the Straits of Sicily.

"We need to find ways to make migration safe and to give these people real choices," Oropeza said.

Protest with sewn lips

On Sunday, 13 Moroccan migrants held at a reception center in Rome for more than two months, protested by sewing their lips together.

"They've been left in complete uncertainty, no one has explained anything to them," said Gabriella Guido, spokeswoman for the migrant advocacy group LasciateCIEntrare.

Campaigners say most migrants want to go to other European countries but can find themselves stuck in limbo in Italy.

Political wrangle

Last month, the coalition government of Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta pledged to improve conditions at overloaded reception centers and revised legislation.

Right-wing groups, including the anti-immigrant Northern League accuse officials of being overgenerous in comparison to Italians struggling amid economic recession.

Two weeks ago, Italian naval vessels and a passing cargo ship rescued more than 500 migrants in three operations off Italy's southern coast.

Last year, the European Commission recommended reinforcing air and sea patrols to detect and intercept migrant boats in line with a plan by EU border patrol agency Frontex.

ipj/hc (Reuters, AFP, AP)