Rome - Hollywood star Angelina Jolie made a surprise visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa on Sunday, thanking residents for hosting thousands of refugees who have fled unrest in north Africa in recent months.
The US actress travelled from Malta with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to the Mediterranean island that has been flooded with more than 40 000 asylum-seekers since the start of 2011, the UN refugee agency said.
Jolie, also a goodwill ambassador for UNHCRy, attended a small ceremony honouring those who died at sea after packing themselves on overcrowded vessels to escape the violence in North Africa.
The Catholic organisation Sant Egidio says 1 820 migrants fleeing north Africa, most from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this year while trying to reach Europe.
Jolie noted the horrific decision forced on those who had no choice but to try crossing unpredictable seas on makeshift rafts, risking drowning and starvation.Difficult moments
In Malta, Jolie and Guterres visited detention facilities where some new arrivals are held while their asylum requests are processed.
"We've spoken about our shared concerns about making sure asylum claims are processed as quickly as possible so no one is sitting in a prison-like situation and waiting on a decision about their status," Jolie said.
"They are not asking to go to any particular country; they just want to find safety to work and to have freedom."
Guterres noted that island residents had some difficult moments of late, particularly in March, when a surge of people arrived on the island after fleeing Libya when NATO began bombing targets linked to Moamer Kadhafi's regime.
On Friday, Jolie visited a camp in Turkey
where some 9 600 Syrian refugees are camped after fleeing their government's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.