UNITED NATIONS (Geneva) • A record 137,000 people made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in the first half of this year, most of them fleeing war, conflict and persecution, the United Nations (UN) has said.
"Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions," the UN refugee agency warned in a report yesterday, adding that the number of people making the crossing swelled 83 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with a year earlier.
The situation is expected to worsen as milder summer weather allows people smugglers to dispatch more people on the dangerous crossing, often in rickety boats and at the mercy of human traffickers.
The immigration crisis is a burning issue for the European Union (EU), whose member states have been wrangling over the best ways to tackle human trafficking and arguing over how to share the burden of helping new arrivals - many of them ill, starving and destitute.
The soaring numbers arriving in Italy and Greece, before moving on to other European states in the hope of finding jobs, have sparked outcry and growing anti-foreigner rhetoric in many countries.
The UN hailed Brussels' decision to redistribute 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum-seekers who have already arrived in Europe, but called for greater solidarity between countries to help both migrants and the states carrying the heaviest loads.
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres stressed that most folk attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean are not economic migrants. "Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees seeking protection from war and persecution," he said.
A third of those who have arrived by sea in Italy or Greece this year came from war-ravaged Syria, while people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Eritrea's repressive regime each made up 12 per cent of arrivals. Other top countries of origin include Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan, the report said.
This year has also seen a sharp increase in the number of people dying while crossing the Mediterranean. So far 1,867 have been killed - 1,308 of them in April alone. The unprecedented number of deaths that month spurred European leaders to broaden search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, cutting fatalities to 68 in May and 12 last month. "With the right policy, backed by an effective operational response, it is possible to save more lives at sea," Mr Guterres said.
Italy, which last year had 170,000 people land on its shores, saw that number slump in the first half of 2015 to 67,500. In Greece, however, arrivals have more than doubled to 68,000 so far this year compared with 43,500 in all of last year, the report said.