1m braved the seas for Europe in 2015

A child receiving treatment in a makeshift hospital following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma on the eastern edge of the capital Damascus on Wednesday. Syria's war has forced more than four million pe
A child receiving treatment in a makeshift hospital following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma on the eastern edge of the capital Damascus on Wednesday. Syria's war has forced more than four million people to flee the country.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Number seeking sanctuary almost five times the 2014 total, says UN, with half from Syria

NEW YORK • More than one million refugees and migrants braved the seas in 2015 to seek sanctuary in Europe, nearly five times the total in the previous year, the United Nations refugee agency has said.

About half of the 1,000,573 men, women and children who made the perilous journey came from war-torn Syria, while Afghans accounted for about a fifth, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency said in a statement.

Most people who took to the water for Europe made their way across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece's islands, it said. From Greece, many travelled to wealthier western Europe.

A photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to reach Greece with his family in September appeared around the world, prompting sympathy and outrage over the refugee crisis.

Nearly 4,000 people were believed to have drowned before reaching shore, the UNHCR said.

The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is likely to have surpassed 60 million last year, mainly driven by the war in Syria and other long-term conflicts, the United Nations has said.

Another major route for migrants was the Mediterranean Sea, separating North Africa and the Middle East from Europe, it said.

Europe is in the midst of its biggest migration crisis since World War II.

The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is likely to have surpassed 60 million last year, mainly driven by the war in Syria and other long-term conflicts, the United Nations has said.

The UNHCR said it tallied the number of migrants travelling by sea to Europe using figures from national authorities.

The figure in 2015 represents nearly five times the sea arrivals to Europe in 2014, recorded at about 216,000, the agency said.

The number highlighted the issue of people forced to flee in dangerous ways, said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.

"There are abundant regular, safe and legal means of managing this, and they need serious looking at," he said.

The influx of refugees and migrants has caused tensions across Europe, with some nations toughening border controls.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who earned both praise and criticism at home and abroad for her decision to open her country to the record wave of refugees, yesterday asked her people to see the influx as "an opportunity for tomorrow" and urged doubters not to follow racist hate-mongers.

The past year - when Germany, the EU's top economy, took in the bulk of the asylum seekers - had been unusually challenging, Dr Merkel said in a New Year address while also bracing Germans for more hardships ahead.

Dr Merkel, faced with opposition in her conservative camp and popular concerns about the influx, has vowed to take steps to reduce the numbers this year.

But she stressed that in the end it would all be worth it because "countries have always benefited from successful immigration, both economically and socially".

In a reference to right-wing populists and xenophobic street rallies, she said "it's important we don't allow ourselves to be divided".

Syria has been ravaged by a five-year civil war that facilitated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group. The conflict has forced more than four million people to flee the country and killed about 250,000 people.

On Wednesday, at least 16 people were killed and 30 injured by explosions in three restaurants in north-eastern Syria, a monitoring group said, in attacks claimed by ISIS.

At least one of the blasts in the city of Qamishli was caused by a suicide bomber, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline '1m braved the seas for Europe in 2015'. Print Edition | Subscribe