Aegean Sea refugee crossings rise 35 fold year-on-year in January – watchdog

Posted by admin on Feb 3rd, 2016

by Damien Gayle

More than 52,000 crossed in January, says IOM, as Merkel defends open-door policy and says most refugees will eventually return home

More than 52,000 refugees and migrants crossed the eastern Mediterranean to reach Europe in the first four weeks of January, more than 35 times as many as attempted the crossing in the same period last year.

The daily average number of people making the crossing is nearly equivalent to the total number for the whole month of January as recently as two years ago, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

More than 250 people have died attempting to make the crossing this month, including at least 39 who drowned in the Aegean Sea on Saturday morning after their boat capsized between Turkey and Greece.

Turkish coastguards rescued 75 others from the sea near the resort of Ayvacik on Saturday, according to the Anadolou news agency. They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.

The eastern route into Europe, via Greece, has overtaken the previously popular central Mediterranean route from north Africa over the past year. Refugees have continued to use the route all winter, despite rough seas and strong winds.

“An estimated 52,055 migrants and refugees have arrived in the Greek islands since the beginning of the year,” the IOM said. “This is close to the total recorded in the relatively safe month of July 2015, when warm weather and calm seas allowed 54,899 to make the journey.”

Turkey, which is hosting at least 2.5 million refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, has become the main launchpad for migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty. Ankara struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the flow of refugees, in return for €3bn (£2.3bn) in financial assistance to help improve the refugees’ conditions.

This week the IOM reported that a survey of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece showed 90% were from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. People of those nationalities are allowed to leave Greece and enter Macedonia en route to western Europe as asylum seekers.

But on Wednesday the Idomeni border crossing from Greece to Macedonia remained closed from midday to midnight. Macedonian officials blamed congestion at the border with Serbia.

Survivors of the latest capsize were identified as being from Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar. “We are sad. At least 20 friends are still missing,” one survivor told an Agence France-Presse photographer. The Turkish news agency Dogan reported that police had arrested a Turkish man suspected of being the smuggler who organised the crossing.

The large number of new arrivals sparked by the worst refugee crisis since the second world war has led to civil and political unrest in many European countries.

On Saturday, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, tried to placate the increasingly vocal critics of her open-door policy on refugees, insisting that asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq would go home once the conflicts there had ended.

Despite appearing increasingly isolated over her policy, Merkel has resisted pressure from some conservatives to cap the influx of refugees or to close Germany’s borders. A record 1.1 million refugees and migrants arrived in Germany last year.

Merkel said it was important to stress that many refugees had been given permission to stay for only a limited period of time.

“We need … to say to people that this is a temporary residential status and we expect that once there is peace in Syria again, once [Islamic State] has been defeated in Iraq, that you go back to your home country with the knowledge that you have gained,” she said at a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Sexual assaults on women during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne were blamed on migrants after victims described their alleged attackers as being of Arab appearance. Days later, as reports emerged of attacks on women in Malmö on New Year’s Eve, police in Sweden were accused of covering up sex attacks by refugees at a music festival in 2014.

Opponents of European refugee policies have tried to blame the attacks on the Islamic culture of new arrivals, claiming it includes an inherent disrespect for women. However, the Labour MP Jess Phillips argued the situation in Cologne was little different from that faced by women in Birmingham city centre every weekend.

Speaking to the Birmingham Mail on Friday, Phillips defended the comments. “In every city there will be places where there are groups of men, drunk, and lots of stuff going on, and women have to constantly worry about being felt up and suffering street harassment,” she said.

“This isn’t something that refugees have brought into our country. This is something that’s always existed. And every woman I have spoken to this morning has said: ‘Yes, I’ve had bad experiences.’ In fact, it’s more notable when you go out and you don’t get felt up.”

In the UK port town of Dover, where some refugees have tried to smuggle themselves in on trucks and ferries, rightwing protesters clashed with anti-fascists on Saturday as they staged opposing demonstrations.

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