Big increase in number of refugees crossing Mediterranean: UN

Geneva, (IANS/AKI) The number of people who crossed the Mediterranean increased by a record 83 percent in the first six months of the year and most are refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, the UN said on Wednesday.

“Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution,” said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Europe has a clear responsibility to help… countries must shoulder their fair share in responding to the refugee crisis, at home and abroad.”

Of the 137,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe between January and June, one-third were from Syria, while Afghanistan and Eritrea were the second and third most common country of origin, the UNHCR said.

Syrians “are almost universally deemed to qualify for refugee status or other forms of protection” while Afghans and Eritreans “mostly” qualify, the UN refugee agency said.

Citing data received from Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, UNCHR said the 137,000 arrivals from January to June compared to 75,000 in the same period last year.

Arrivals in the second half of this year are expected to soar, given that historically, the boat crossings increase during the summer when the weather is warmer and seas are calmer, the UNHCR warned.

April was the deadliest month so far this year when an unprecedented 1,308 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing, it said.

The UNHCR said fatalities plummetted in May and June and were significantly lower than in the same months of 2014.

“The decline in people drowning over the past two months is encouraging; a sign that with the right policy, backed by an effective operational response, it is possible to save more lives at sea,” said Guterres.

He was referring to the European Union’s boosting of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, agreed at a summit in late April after a migrant boat sank off Libya with the loss of over 800 lives, one of the worst maritime disasters since World War II.

More people are now reaching Europe via the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey into Greece than the central Mediterranean route from north Africa to Italy, according to the UNHCR.

Greece is unable to provide adequate reception facilities for the influx of mainly Syrian refugees and many host countries are struggling to cope, making it increasingly hard for refugees to obtain work, shelter, healthcare and education, forcing many to move on, UNHCR said.

The agency also underlined the dangers faced by the refugees on their long journeys across the Balkans and through Hungary, which has announced it will build a four-metre-high fence to stop people crossing the border from Serbia.

“There are frequent reports of abuse and violence along the way by smugglers and criminal networks, as well as the increasing tightening of borders,” said UNHCR.

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