UNHCR hears of boats in distress on Mediterranean

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The UN refugee agency warned Tuesday that it has heard that a number of boats carrying more people fleeing from Libya are in distress on the Mediterranean Sea.

"As of this morning there were unconfirmed reports of a number of boats in distress on the Mediterranean carrying more people fleeing from Libya," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

With more people expected to arrive in both Italy and Malta, the UNHCR said it is looking into contingency plans with the respective authorities.

"UNHCR is discussing contingency planning with the Italian and Maltese authorities and Red Cross, as there are indications that more arrivals from Libya can be expected," she added, without giving details on these plans.

More than 2,000 people have fled Libya by boat to Malta and Italy, but none among them appear to be Libyans, said Fleming.

Most who have arrived so far are Eritreans and Somalis, including many women and children, added the UNHCR.

Fleming said it is possible that some of the arrivals include those who originally intended to use Libya as a transit point to get to Europe, and were stuck when the conflict broke out.

But she noted that sub-Saharan Africans are bona fide refugees.

"If they are from Somalia, these people are refugees, many Eritreans are refugees, and many of them are registered with UNHCR as refugees," said Fleming.

"Our understanding is that they have been living in horrendous, terrifying conditions in Tripoli," noted the spokeswoman, pointing out that they had been harassed as they were mistaken as mercenaries fighting for pro-regime forces.

"I think any route out possible, they are taking. These are smuggler boats, they are paying so we may not see a big outflow because many people don't have any money anymore," added Fleming.

Before the revolt against the Kadhafi regime, the UNHCR had registered more than 8,000 refugees from Africa and the Middle East inside Libya who were seeking to head to Europe and had 3,000 more asylum cases pending.

The UNHCR had reports earlier this month that Eritrean refugees were being detained in both eastern and western parts of Libya.

© 2011 AFP

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