U.N. Says Most of Those Crossing Mediterranean for Europe Are Refugees

A young Afghan boy and other new migrants who went through Turkey disembark from a boat on the Greek island of Lesvos. Socrates Baltagiannis/UNHCR

Most of the people arriving on Southern European shores by boat qualify as refugees because they are fleeing war or persecution, the U.N. said on Wednesday.

At a time of growing anti-immigrant feeling in many European Union countries, the distinction between refugees and migrants is an important one, since host countries have an obligation under international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, to protect those who qualify as refugees.

A group of refugees and migrants aboard a dinghy approach a beach on the island of Lesvos after crossing from Turkey. Socrates Baltagiannis/UNHCR

"As Europe debates the best way to deal with the rising crisis on the Mediterranean, we must be clear: Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution," António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement Wednesday as the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) published its latest report on the crisis.

The report said Greece is now receiving more refugees and migrants than Italy, replacing it as the primary country for arrivals from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. The Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece has overtaken the central Mediterranean route, from North Africa to Italy, as the primary one for arrivals by sea. From January to June this year, 68,000 people arrived in Greece, compared with 67,500 in Italy, accounting for nearly all the arrivals in the period. The ongoing crisis of displaced people making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to safety in Europe is primarily a refugee crisis and one of "historic proportions," said the UNHCR.

One-third of the 137,000 men, women and children who crossed the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2015 are from Syria, "whose nationals are almost universally deemed to qualify for refugee status or other forms of protection," according to the report. So far this year, Italy saw its largest number of arrivals come from Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia, while Greece was most likely to receive migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

A group of Afghans leave their dinghy and wade ashore in Mytilini, on the Greek island of Lesvos. Jowan Akkash/UNHCR

"[The] majority of the 137,000 people were fleeing from war, conflict or persecution," Brian Hansford, spokesman for the UNHCR, said from Washington, D.C. "Every one of these 137,000 people is a personal tragedy."

Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta saw an 83 percent increase in the number of migrants and refugees who crossed the sea from January to June 2015, compared with the same period in 2014, according to the report. The number of people who reached Spain was 1,230 and in Malta 94.

Greece, embroiled in economic crisis, is struggling to deal with the influx of 68,000 migrants and refugees since the beginning of the year, which far exceeds the 2,000 reception places the country officially has available. An Amnesty International report published last month found horrific conditions at a number of reception and detention centers for migrants and refugees, including overflowing toilets, soiled mattresses and bedding, and a lack of medical care and interpreters.

The UNHCR also noted the "inadequate reception facilities" for new arrivals in its report. The majority of arrivals to Greece are Syrian refugees, many of whom first went to Turkey or Lebanon, two countries, along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, where 95 percent of Syrian refugees live.

More than half of migrants the UNHCR spoke to said they spent time in Turkey before arriving in Greece. Ninety percent of migrants and refugees in Greece wanted to find asylum elsewhere in Europe, mainly in Germany or Sweden.

The UNHCR expects the numbers of arrivals to increase in the summer months, "not just because of the weather but because there's no end to these tragedies in sight," said Hansford. The number of deaths at sea rose to at least 1,308 in April 2015, a "horrifying" number compared with the 42 who died in April 2014, according to the UNHCR. In April, European leaders met to address the crisis and agreed to triple funding for EU-led efforts at sea; in May, just 68 people died or went missing at sea.

The number of refugees and migrants entering the Western Balkans region, including Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, has increased "dramatically" since the beginning of June, with more than 1,000 arriving every day, compared with 200 a few weeks ago. On Tuesday, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU's migration commissioner, said Hungary is witnessing an "unprecedented" number of migrant and refugee arrivals, comparing it to the large numbers seen in Italy and Greece. Last month, Hungary's government announced a plan to build a fence along its southern border with Serbia to keep migrants and refugees out of the country.

The U.N. says the EU should continue its search-and-rescue operation at sea and improve reception conditions. The first priority, said Hansford, is saving lives.