14,000 have fled to Italy, Malta from Libya: UNHCR

17th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Some 14,000 people have fled to Italy or Malta by boat from Libya since the beginning of the conflict and thousands more are planning to do the same, the UN refugees agency said Tuesday.

"To date around 14,000 people have arrived by boat in Italy and Malta from Libya," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Of this number, 1,669 arrived on Friday and Saturday," she added.

"Based on discussions with people who have arrived in Italy, we believe that thousands more will attempt to make this journey by sea," said Fleming.

Hundreds of people who had initially fled to Tunisia or Egypt are even returning to Libya with plans to board Europe-bound boats.

"Among them are refugees, including members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the camps at Shousha near Tunisia's border with Libya," said Fleming.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, these refugees are prepared to brave the danger and return to Libya in the hopes of getting on Europe-bound boats, partly because of a recent EU-Tunisia deal which is preventing them from leaving from the Tunisian coast.

"Part of the agreement says that Europe would invest economically and another part says that Tunisia would help to stop boats leaving," said Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman for the IOM.

In addition, "Tunisian smugglers are refusing to take other nationalities than Tunisian," added the spokeswoman.

About 1,200 people known to have attempted the crossing since March 25, are unaccounted for, said the UNHCR.

© 2011 AFP

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