The scale of mass migration across the Mediterranean has been revealed by new figures showing that record numbers of migrants are now arriving by boat inGreece as well as Italy.
Just four months into the year, the number of arrivals in Greece is already two-thirds as high as last year’s total, highlighting the volume of migration in not just the central Mediterranean, between Libya and Italy, but also at its eastern fringes. Even as the UN security council mulls using military force against smugglers in Libya, the figures suggest migrants are increasingly using other routes to break into Fortress Europe.
In the first four months of the year, at least 21,745 migrants arrived in Greece by boat, compared with 33,951 in all of 2014, according to figures provided to the Guardian by the International Organisation for Migration, and compiled by the Greek coastguard.
The numbers are even higher than estimates released earlier in the year, and show almost as many migrants are arriving in Greece as in Italy. At least 26,228 have reached Italy since the start of 2015, fractionally down on last year’s equivalent level.
Aid workers in the Greek islands, where most migrants travelling by sea arrive from Turkey, say the rises are all the more surprising because the peak smuggling season has not yet started.
Stathis Kyroussis, head of mission in Greece for Médecins sans Frontières, which provides support to migrants, said: “It’s not just an increase, it’s an explosive increase. It’s already five times up on last year. In one island – the biggest, Kos – last year we had 72 entries in all of April. This year we had 2,110. In Leros last April we had zero. This year we had 900.”
Kyroussis said the increase in arrivals in Greece seemed to have been caused in part by a rise in Syrians making the trip. “There is a higher percentage of Syrians travelling to the Greek islands: last year it was 60%, this year it is 80%,” said Kyroussis. “So part of the increase is a change in the route of the Syrians. Instead of Italy, they’re coming through Greece.”
This analysis appears to be corroborated by further IOM statistics, which show that Syrians account for only 8% of arrivals in Italy this year, compared with 25% in 2014. Theories for the rise include the civil war in Libya, which may have put Syrians off travelling there; and the worsening situation inSyria, which has persuaded many Syrian refugees in Turkey that there is no longer point in waiting for Syria’s chaos to be resolved.
Saeed, a 38-year-old Syrian planning to sail to Greece from the Turkish port of Mersin next week, said he was leaving because he had given up hope of a return home. “This thing in Syria seems to be only beginning,” he said. “I have no hope in a solution, and I want to carry on my life and bring up my daughters somewhere safe and dignified.”
Saeed added that concerns over the future of EU asylum policy were prompting Syrians to act while there was still time. “We keep hearing rumours about EU countries changing their asylum policies,” he said. “I want to make it there before this actually happens.”
Additional pressures on the Turkey-Greece route could also have been caused by restrictive new visa policies in Algeria, where Syrians used to fly before travelling onwards to the Libyan coast. Kyroussis also reported that new arrivals to Greece had spoken of a reduction in smuggling operations between Turkey and Italy, leaving Greece as the only possible destination.
“They said: we wanted to go to Italy,” said Kyroussis. “But the smugglers said: forget these vessels, they don’t go any more, and the coastguard is cracking down on them.”
In the past week, Turkey’s coastguard rescued more than 600 people trying to cross the eastern Mediterranean to Greece. At least 400 of the 636 migrants were Syrian.