More than 3,400 people – many drowning off Greek islands in rickety craft – have died in the Mediterranean this year trying to reach Europe, the UN refugee agency said, urging governments to take more action to save lives.
More than 207,000 people have made the risky sea crossing since January, almost three times the previous high of 70,000 during the Libyan civil war in 2011, the UNHCR said, according to Agence France Presse. Of these, a record 3,419 died, out of a total of 4,272 reported deaths worldwide on migrant vessels this year.
Most set off from Libya bound for Italy and Malta, looking for work or, increasingly, asylum, including 60,051 Syrians and 34,561 Eritreans. The figures were released at the start of a two-day meeting in Geneva hosted by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on how to protect people who take to the sea to escape persecution, war, instability and poverty.
Many of the illegal immigrants head for Greece with hopes of finding refuge there or using the country as a jumping-off point to get to other European Union countries to seek asylum, which is rarely granted in Greece. But EU law allows immigrant to seek asylum only in the country in which they land and bars them from going elsewhere.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants are being cared for on Crete after being rescued when their overcrowded boat ran into troubles in high seas and bad weather. Greece has asked the EU for additional help to deal with the growing hordes who keep coming despite a fence along the Turkish border.
Ahead of the talks involving governments, UN agencies and NGOs, Guterres warned that many states seem increasingly preoccupied with securing their own borders rather than preventing the loss of life.
Without naming specific countries, he said: “This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars. Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up being collateral damage,” he said.
Greece has been blasted by a number of human rights organizations for its treatment of illegal immigrants, many being kept in detention centers cited as being unfit.
The UNHCR reported that a total of 348,000 migrants and asylum seekers took to the sea this year in a desperate attempt to reach the shores of the EU, including Greece.