The tiny island of Lampedusa lies in the Mediterranean Sea about 150 miles south of Sicily, and like Sicily is part of Italy. Because of its proximity to Tunisia and north Africa however, it is the chosen port of call for thousands of refugees every year. There are only 4,500 permanent Lampedusans, yet it is estimated that some 20,000 refugees have passed through Lampedusa over the past few years. These people are fleeing wars and unrest in Tunisia and Libya and are seeking a better life in Italy and the EU at large. However, as with any situation where two cultures collide in frenzied fashion, there are many misgivings feelings of hostility. The problem has been festering for a while, in April Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi paid a visit to the island and promised to “[C]lear the island of migrants in record time.” The situation is similar to that occurring in the south-western United States with migrants form Mexico looking to cross the boarder and start a new life in the U.S.
Unfortunately, as with the Mexican migrants, the Tunisian and Libyan refugees are willing to take any means necessary to get to a better life. Many do not make it. Just today, 25 bodies were found in the engine compartment of a 50-foot boat. What’s more, there were 271 survivors. This boat, no bigger than a small commercial fishing boat, was smuggling more than 300 people. While we have seen the numbers of people seeking asylum shrink dramatically over the past decade, new struggles in north Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere are putting strain on international humanitarian organizations. And this is just one incident. It’s estimated that one in ten refugees dies on their journey. There have been at least 800 people who have died trying to get to Lampedusa over the past months. Stories similar to today’s highlight these tragedies and have been documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees here, here, and here.
The UNHCR celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and is just as relevant today as it was in 1951. Originally founded to help Europeans displaced after World War II, it has since aided refugees from every major conflict on every populated continent. In 60 years, the UNHCR has helped some 50 million people get their lives back in order following displacement due to political, economic, military, or environmental factors.