Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
ROME, Italy, October 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday reported that rescue efforts on southern Italy's Lampedusa Island are now focused on helping people who survived the sinking a day earlier of the flimsy boat on which they were trying to reach Europe from North Africa.
"A colleague in Lampedusa, who we spoke to an hour ago, is reporting 155 survivors, all but one of whom is Eritrean - the other is Tunisian," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said on Friday morning.
The UNHCR staff member in Lampedusa also reported that the search operation had been called off because of rough seas. Some 111 bodies have been recovered so far, but with a reported 500 people on board and the boat on which they were travelling having now sunk, it is feared that many bodies remain trapped in the wreckage on the sea floor.
Fleming said that among the survivors were 40 unaccompanied boys aged between 14 and 17, and six women. "They are exhausted and in a state of shock," she said, adding: "Others are still missing, presumed trapped inside the boat. Those who died presumably either could not swim or were trapped in the boat's crammed lower deck."
The survivors are currently being sheltered in a reception centre, already overcrowded and holding some 1,000 people from other recent boat arrivals. UNHCR was discussing on Friday with the Italian authorities details of when people might be moved on to better facilities.
"UNHCR will be meeting the survivors of this latest accident today, and they will be provided with advice on asylum procedures. We have additional staff arriving from Rome this morning, and a Red Cross psychologist will be providing counselling," Fleming said.
According to the survivors, the boat they were on left from Libya 13 days ago carrying 500 people. Most came aboard at Misrata, but others joined them further west in Zuwara. As they approached the Italian coast early Thursday, the boat's engine stopped.
They had been hoping to be seen and rescued, but fishing boats reportedly passed without helping. They then set clothing and blankets on fire to attract attention. The vessel was finally spotted by a tourist boat which sounded the alert. The Italian coastguard came to their rescue.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres commented today: "There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call. More effective international cooperation is required including a crack-down on traffickers and smugglers while protecting their victims. It shows how important it is for refugees to have legal channels to access territories where they can find protection."
Later Friday, in closing remarks to the annual meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee, he reiterated this message and also mourned the lack of mechanisms to avert this kind of tragedy. "What really makes me feel deeply frustrated is the fact that we have no real instruments that allow those who are in need of protection to find ways to access territories where that protection can be granted to them without having to use, in many circumstances, the channels of smuggling, of trafficking, of submitting themselves to terrible violations of human rights."
He called on states "to come together . . . to find ways to be able to effectively crack down on smugglers and traffickers and other criminals that do those horrible things we are witnessing. But also to find the ways to protect victims and to allow everybody to have access to where protection can be granted without having to risk their lives and to suffer such brutal violations of their human rights."Map of the boat tragedy place