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UNHCR gives qualified welcome to EU Mediterranean plans

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Survivors of the deadly shipwreck at the weekend disembark from the Italian Coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti at Catania in Sicily. More than 800 people are feared dead. © UNHCR/F.Malavolta

GENEVA, Italy, April 21 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency on Tuesday welcomed European plans to tackle the challenges of irregular migration in the Mediterranean, but said saving human lives at sea should remain the priority after hundreds of refugees and migrants lost their lives.

The European Union (EU) Joint Foreign Affairs and Home Council on Monday proposed a 10-point action plan on migration following a week of shipwrecks on the Mediterranean, including the most deadly recorded by UNHCR.

According to survivors interviewed by UNHCR, the boat departed from Tripoli in Libya on Saturday morning with some 850 people on board, including 350 Eritreans as well as people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.

"Only 28 people are known to have survived the shipwreck, including a young man from Bangladesh who was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Catania, Sicily, on Sunday, and 27 people disembarked by the Italian Coastguard in Catania last night [Monday]," UNHCR spokesman Arian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

"From available information and the various accounts we've had, UNHCR now believes the number of fatalities to have been over 800, making this the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean we have ever recorded," he added.

UNHCR staff in Catania said the survivors looked tired and nervous. Aid workers presented them with clothes and food. "The fear in the eyes of one man, his head lowered and hands stuffed into his pockets, is plain to see," wrote Kate Bond, a writer for UNHCR. "One survivor told UNHCR staff that there were children aboard the boat. So far, none of them have been found, although search-and-rescue operations at the site continue," she added.

The refugees and migrants were taken by bus to a nearby reception centre, where they received medical attention. Dazed, vacant faces stared out of the windows of the bus as it pulled away into the dark night.

"The migrants looked exhausted, fragile, astonished to see so many people waiting for them. They will need psychological support. They are receiving food and water," said UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami in Catania.