'Historic' crisis as 137,000 migrants reach Europe by sea in first half of 2015

137,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in the first six months of this year, according to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who describe the figures "as a crisis of historic proportions".

Data received from Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain shows a staggering 83% increase in refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean from January to June – 137,000 compared to 75,000 in the same period last year.

The report highlights the fact that the vast majority of these people who are desperate to reach Europe's shores are fleeing war, conflict and persecution, making the current Mediterranean crisis primarily a refugee one.

The report found that one third of the 137,000 people recorded came from Syria. Almost all Syrian nationals will qualify for refugee status due to the ongoing civil war in the country which has claimed the lives of more than 320,000 since it erupted in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The second and third most common countries of origin were Afghanistan and Eritrea, whose nationals also qualify for refugee status in most cases.

"Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution," said António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees.

The numbers attempting the crossing are only expected to grow as the year continues. Historically crossings increase in the second half of the year, in particular over the summer months when weather conditions are better. The report says that arrivals in the second half of 2014 were almost double those of the first half.

Many refugees who attempt the crossing don't make it. The report highlights that April was particularly bleak for refugee deaths, when an unprecedented 1,308 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing, compared to 42 in April 2014.

In mid-April, 800 people died in the largest refugee shipwreck on record, a tragedy which made international headlines and caused much soul-searching but little action from European leaders.

Last week, European leaders agreed to relocate 40,000 refugees to EU states over the next two years, although there will be no mandatory quotas set for each country, at a summit held in Brussels.

In acrimonious discussions, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi accused EU leaders of wasting time, telling them: "If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it," and describing the scheme as "modest".

The report shows that the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey into Greece is now the most popular one, surpassing the central Mediterranean route – from North Africa to Italy – as the main source of arrivals by sea. The report also warns that reception facilities for refugees in some parts of Italy and Greece are inadequate.

The report makes clear in no uncertain terms the severity of the crisis: "Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions," it reads. "Its evolving response has become one of the continent's defining challenges of the early 21st century, with long-lasting implications for humanitarian practice, regional stability and international public opinion".