GENEVA - A record number of people fleeing war and persecution or in search of a better life have crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe in the first half of this year.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says refugees comprise the majority of the 137,000 people making this dangerous journey.
The UNHCR describes the mass sea crossing of the Mediterranean as a refugee crisis. Despite common perceptions, it says most of the people seeking to reach Europe’s shores are not economic migrants, but people fleeing in fear of their lives.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told VOA most of the people making the perilous journey in flimsy smugglers’ boats come from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.
“The top five countries of origin of these people are all countries experiencing conflict or human rights violations," he said. "All of the people who come from these countries have a very high admission rate as refugees in Europe. So, European states themselves grant refugee status to the vast majority of people who are crossing the Mediterranean. So, we are looking into a refugee crisis as opposed to a migrant crisis.”
Surge in crossings
Data shows Mediterranean crossings by refugees and migrants between January and June increased by 83 percent to 137,000 compared to 75,000 in the same period last year. The UNHCR says it expects these numbers to soar in the second half of the year - traditionally the high season for migrant crossings.
The number of deaths at sea also has increased dramatically. The report finds 1,850 people drowned or went missing at sea in the first six months of 2015. This is more than three times higher than the same period last year.
Spindler noted the number of deaths at sea rose to record levels in April. He said more than 1,300 people were killed in a series of shipwrecks off Lampedusa and Sicily in Italy.
He also said this tragedy prompted European countries to reinforce their search-and-rescue missions. He said the number of deaths at sea dropped dramatically in May and June following this action.
“What we would like to see now is the same kind of vision and leadership that Europe was showing in this robust search and rescue operation to be also applied to the reception of people once they land.
"We also expect Europe to do its part to help those who are seeking protection from war and persecution on its soil because Europe has to shoulder its fair share in responding to this situation,” said Spindler.
Most of the refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean land in small towns and villages in Italy and Greece. These places have limited capacity to deal with such large numbers of people. Conditions in the reception centers are described as appalling, and many of the arrivals eventually move north to other places in Europe.
The UNHCR report shows the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey into Greece now has surpassed the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy as the main source of arrivals by ship.