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.
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.
As debate intensifies over Greece’s fate in the Schengen passport-free zone due its perceived failure in tackling a burgeoning migration crisis, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere indicated that stopping migrants and refugees at the Slovenia-Croatia border would effectively block Greece out of the zone but would have repercussions for other countries.
“Stopping refugees between Slovenia and Croatia is an idea which is being discussed in depth by countries in southeastern Europe,” de Maiziere told German news magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday.
“One cannot overlook the fact that Greece would thus be blocked de facto from Schengen, which could create overcrowding, either in Greece, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or elsewhere in the Balkans,” he said.
De Maiziere, who is due in Greece next week for talks on the refugee crisis, noted that Turkey had made only “isolated efforts” to honor its pledges to the European Union to crack down on the smugglers who are bringing thousands of migrants and refugees into the bloc via Greece. Turkish authorities must do much more if the wave of undocumented migration across the Aegean is to be contained, he added.
In an interview with Austria’s Der Standard, Greek Alternate Minister for Migration Affairs Yiannis Mouzalas defended Athens’s response to the crisis, saying that EU border agency Frontex itself has noted that the Greek authorities are doing “a very good job” and underlining that the priority remains to rescue refugees at sea.
European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Friday that there is no possibility of any country being forced out of the Schengen area and declared himself confident that the Greek government would soon make the improvements needed to satisfy Brussels.
“The exit of a country from the Schengen zone has not been requested, nor discussed,” said Avramopoulos at a gala dinner in Athens organized by the Economist.
“The Schengen Evaluation Report carried out in November found a series of shortcomings that have to be addressed,” he added, referring to the results of inspections on two islands that concluded Greece was not keeping to its commitments as a member of the passport-free area. “The Greek authorities are taking the necessary action.”
The Commission has given Athens three months to rectify the failures in the screening of migrants and refugees.
The Infrastructure Ministry on Friday ordered 1,150 25-square meter prefabricated huts to house refugees and migrants at various points around the country. The structures will cost 14.1 million euros. Another 1.5 million will be spent on transporting them.