Search for 200 after refugee boat sinks
Sophie Arie in Lampedusa
Saturday June 21, 2003
The Guardian

Rescuers plucked 20 bodies from the sea and continued searching for a further 200 last night after a boat loaded with would-be immigrants sank off the Tunisian coast. Coastguard and naval vessels rescued 41 people after the boat sank yesterday 70 miles from Sfax. But 189 more passengers were feared drowned.

Tunisian authorities said the boat had set out "from a neighbouring country" for Italy, with passengers from several African countries on board. They could not explain why the ship had capsized. Several smaller wooden vessels have capsized in the waters around Italy in the past few days.

Reports claimed that two other boats carrying illegal immigrants had been found in Tunisian waters on Wednesday and Thursday. The first, carrying 28 people, was found near Zarzis, near the Libyan border and the second, a rubber boat carrying 24, was found at Djerba.

In a similar case, 60 people are believed drowned after their overloaded boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, between Sicily and North Africa, on Monday.

Some 3,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from central Africa and the Middle East, reportedly reached Italian waters in recent weeks, forcing Italian authorities to house them in temporary "welcome centres". The centre in Lampedusa has reached bursting point, and has had to erect tents to house nearly three times its normal capacity.

Most of the boats reportedly set out from Libya and Italian officials have criticised the north African country for failing to stem the flow.

Italy issued a decree on Thursday allowing its coast-guards to turn back boats before they enter Italian waters if the vessels seem seaworthy and if their passengers are not genuine asylum seekers.

Medecins Sans Frontieres Italy expressed "deep concern" about the decree, warning it opened the path for a "flagrant violation" of the Geneva Convention on refugees which obliges individual states to offer refuge to asylum seekers.

"Italy is trying to put up a sort of big wall in the middle of the sea," said MSF Italy's head of mission, Loris De Filippi. "But it is far from certain once they have left that Libya would take these people back."

Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, minister for reforms in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, complained the new decree fell short of what was required. He suggested authorities should open fire on the boats.


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