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 Wednesday.
‘Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions,’ the UN refugee agency warned in a report. The numbers flooding across the Mediterranean, often in rickety boats and at the mercy of human traffickers, have swelled by 83 per cent compared to the first six months of 2014, when 75,000 people made the journey, it said.
The situation is expected to deteriorate further as more clement summer weather allows ruthless people smugglers to dispatch more people. Arrivals in the second half of 2014 were, for instance, nearly double those of the first half, UNHCR pointed out. 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. The report hailed Brussels’ decision to distribute 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum-seekers who have already arrived in Europe among EU members but called for greater solidarity between countries – to help both the migrants and the states worst affected by the crisis.
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 12 per cent 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. With the right policy, backed by an effective operational response, it is possible to save more lives at sea,’ Guterres said.
Still, ‘for the thousands of refugees and migrants who continue to cross the Mediterranean every week, the risk remains very real,’ he added. Many of those fleeing to Europe first seek safety in overburdened neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, where a quarter of inhabitants are now Syrian refugees, the report said.
The UN also noted a shift in migration patterns, with the number of people travelling the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece now surpassing the route from north Africa to Italy. Italy, which last year had 170,000 people land on its shores – more than three quarters of all maritime arrivals in Europe – saw that slump in the first half of 2015 to 67,500. In Greece, however, arrivals have more than doubled to 68,000 so far this year compared to 43,500 in all of 2014, the report said.
Greece has fewer than 2,000 reception places, and many refugees and migrants push on, aiming often for northern and Western Europe, particularly Sweden and Germany, which are seen as offering better protection and support. But getting there often requires a long and dangerous journey, often at the hands of smugglers who route migrants through the Balkans and onwards through Hungary. Every day, an average of 1,000 people enter Macedonia from Greece, up from 200 just a few weeks ago, UNHCR said.
Broad European cooperation is needed to face the challenge, the report said, warning that controversial anti-migration policies like Hungary’s planned four-metre (13-foot) high border fence, will not halt the influx. In times of conflict, fences and borders will not stop people fleeing for their lives,’ the report said.
Meanwhile, lawless Libya, created by NATO’s war against Colonel Gadaffi, has become a magnet for radical militants who receive weapons training in jihadist camps before launching deadly attacks in other countries, like last week’s beach massacre in Tunisia. The oil-rich North African country bordering Tunisia has rival governments and parliaments as well as a slew of armed groups vying for power in the aftermath of its 2011 NATO-organised uprising that toppled Muammar al-Gadaffi.
The chaos in Libya has ‘serious security implications for the region’, said Michael Nayebi-Oskoui, senior Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm based in the US city of Texas. Libya has witnessed ‘a small but steady return of fighters’ from the conflict in Syria, he said.
Tunisia says 3,000 of its citizens are fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and that 500 battle-hardened veterans have returned home where they pose a security threat. On June 26, a student armed with an assault rifle mowed down 38, mostly UK tourists at Tunisia’s popular Port el Kantaoui beach resort, the second deadly attack on holidaymakers in three months in Tunisia.
Authorities identified the gunman as 23-year-old Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui and said he had received weapons training from jihadists in Libya. He was said to have been in Libya at the same time as the two gunmen who in March attacked the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing 21 tourists and a policeman. It is confirmed that he went to Libya illegally. He was trained in Sabratha,’ west of Tripoli, said Tunisia’s secretary of state for security, Rafik Chelli.
He said the Bardo assailants were out of Tunisia at the same time and had trained with Ansar al-Sharia, an Al-Qaeda-linked group classified as a terrorist organisation by Washington and the UN.
Sabratha, where Tunisian authorities say Rezgui received weapons training before going on the killing spree on a beach, lies 60 kilometres (35 miles) west of Tripoli. The coastal town is also only 100 kilometres from Ras Jdir, the main border crossing between Libya and Tunisia.
Sabratha is on the edge of a region that straddles the Libya-Tunisian border known as ‘Jefara’. The region is characterised by a network of formerly nomadic tribes which have made a living out of trafficking and smuggling. Sabratha falls under the jurisdiction of the powerful Fajr Libya militia alliance which last year seized Tripoli, setting up a government and parliament opposed to the internationally-recognised administration.
Security officials in Tripoli say hundreds of foreign fighters, including Tunisians returning from Syria and Iraq, have entered Libya in recent months, taking advantage of the breakdown in security. The Islamic State group, which is among jihadist organisations that have gained a foothold in Libya, claimed both the Tunisian beach massacre and the Bardo killings. The group now controls the coastal city of Sirte, Gadaffi’s hometown some 500 kilometres from Sabratha.