Record 137,000 migrants make journey across Med
A record 137,000 people made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in the first half of 2015, most of them fleeing war, conflict and persecution, the United Nations said yesterday.
"Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions," the UN refugee agency warned in a report, adding the number of people making the crossing swelled 83pc in the first six months of 2015, compared with a year earlier.
The situation is expected to worsen as more clement summer weather allows ruthless 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 EU, where 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 northern European states in the hope of finding jobs, has sparked outcry and growing anti-foreigner rhetoric in many countries.
It 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 load.
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres stressed most of those 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 in a statement.
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 12pc of arrivals.
Other top countries of origin include conflict-wracked Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan, the report said.
This year has also seen a sharp increase in the numbers of people dying as they try to cross 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 significantly broaden search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, cutting fatalities to 68 in May and 12 in June.
Last month, Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary General's special representative on international migration, bemoaned the failure of EU leaders to approve a plan to share a total of 60,000 would-be refugees, mainly from Syria and Eritrea, across the 28-nation bloc.
Greece and Malta say their EU partners should share more of the burden.