2,000 people per day trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety
As the conflict in Syria reaches new levels of brutality, the flow of refugees from the region toward Europe has accelerated, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. By latest count, more than 80,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by boat during the first six weeks of 2016, more than in the first four months of 2015, despite wintry weather and rough seas, the UNHCR officials said Friday.
Already this year, more than 400 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Right now, about 2,000 people are trying to cross the waters each day. Last year, the numbers didn’t reach this level until July.
“The majority of those arriving in January 2016, nearly 58 percent, were women and children … one in three people arriving to Greece were children as compared to just 1 in 10 in September 2015,” UNHCR’s chief spokesperson Melissa Fleming said during a press briefing in Geneva. Fleming said more than 91 per cent of those arriving in Greece come from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries, including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
When surveyed upon arrival, most of them cite they had to leave their homeland due to conflict. More than 56 percent of January arrivals to Greece were from Syria.
However, UNHCR stressed that solutions to Europe’s situation were not only possible, but had already been agreed by States and now urgently needed to be implemented. Stabilization is essential and something for which there is also strong public demand.
“Within the context of the necessary reduction of dangerous sea arrivals, safe access to seek asylum, including through resettlement and humanitarian admission, is a fundamental human right that must be protected and respected,” she said, explaining that there must be safe pathways to
She said that regular pathways to Europe and elsewhere were important for allowing refugees to reach safety without putting their lives in the hands of smugglers and making dangerous sea crossings.
“Avenues, such as enhanced resettlement and humanitarian admission, family reunification, private sponsorship, and humanitarian and refugee student/work visas, should be established to ensure that movements are manageable, controlled and coordinated for countries receiving these refugees,” Fleming said.
Implementing key points of a 2015 European plan for refugees is critical, said UNHCR European Bureau director Vincent Cochetel. That includes “hotspot” registration centers to speed the relocation process for 160,000 people already in Greece and Italy.
“If Europe wants to avoid the mess of 2015, it must take action. There is no plan B,” Cochotel said.
UNHCR also called for more to be done to reinforce reception capacities at the points of entry to Europe, to allow for the humane and effective accommodation, assistance, registration and security screening of people arriving every day.
This is needed to identify those requiring protection, those who should be relocated to other countries within the EU, and those who do not qualify for refugee protection and for whom effective and dignified return mechanisms have to be put in place.
Since the start of 2016 border control measures have been tightened in many European States. Despite repeated calls by UNHCR to expand legal pathways to allow refugees and asylum seekers to access asylum, many European Member States are in fact reducing the legal avenues available.
On the legal front, restrictive measures on family reunification were imposed in January in Denmark, with refugees now only able to apply for their family to join them after three years, instead of one.
“Other countries are contemplating similar or even more restrictive legislation at a time when European countries need to improve the legal and secure ways to access family reunion and thus combat smuggling,” Fleming said.
Recent successive announcements of national measures aimed at trying to appear more unattractive than the neighboring country only underlines the dire need for an effective comprehensive European response, the problems cannot simply be shifted from one country to another. A race to the bottom helps no-one.
Increasing acts of violence and prejudice have jeopardized the safety and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers across Europe. Fueled by xenophobia and propaganda campaigns based on fear, refugee families, homes and places of worship are being targeted with hate crimes varying from physical attacks, vandalism, arson.
Quick and thorough support mechanisms will be crucial for integrating people in countries receiving the highest number of refugees, including Germany and Sweden, to help dispel the fear and xenophobia and reinstate the common European principles of dignity, solidarity and human rights that the European Union was founded upon.