Mediterranean Sea crossings exceed 300,000, including 200,000 to Greece

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 28 August 2015, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year has now exceeded 300,000, including almost 200,000 people landing in Greece and 110,000 in Italy. This represents a large increase from last year, when around 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean during the whole of 2014.

At the same time, some 2,500 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing this year, trying to reach Europe. This death toll does not include yesterday's tragedy off Libya where numbers of deaths are still unconfirmed. Last year some 3,500 people died or were reported missing in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the last few days, more people have lost their lives in three separate incidents.

The Libyan Coast Guard carried two rescue operations on Thursday morning, seven miles off the port town of Zwara. Two boats carrying an approximate total of 500 refugees and migrants were intercepted and survivors taken to shore in Libya. An estimated 200 people are still missing and feared dead. A still undetermined number of bodies were recovered and taken to shore. The Libyan Red Crescent has been helping with the collection of the bodies.

On Wednesday (26th August), rescuers coming to the aid of a boat off the Libyan coast found 51 people dead from suffocation in the hold. According to survivors, smugglers were charging people money for allowing them to come out of the hold in order to breathe. One survivor, Abdel, 25, from Sudan told our colleagues, "we didn't want to go down there but they beat us with sticks to force us. We had no air so we were trying to get back up through the hatch and to breathe through the cracks in the ceiling. But the other passengers were scared the boat would capsize so they pushed us back down and beat us too. Some were stamping on our hands." Another survivor, Mahdi, an orthopaedic surgeon from Baghdad, told us he paid 3,000 euros to get his wife and two-year-old son on the top deck.

Last week (15 August), in a similar incident, the bodies of 49 persons were found in the hold of another boat. They are thought to have died after inhaling poisonous fumes.

Also on Wednesday, a rubber dinghy carrying some 145 refugees and migrants ran into trouble when the person steering it made a manoeuvre that caused the dinghy to tilt dangerously to one side. Some people fell into the sea and two men jumped into the water to rescue them. Panic ensued and people began to jostle and shove and, as a result, three women were crushed to death on the dinghy. Of those who fell in the water, 18 are still missing and believed to have drowned. The survivors were rescued and taken to Lampedusa, including the two-month old baby of one of the women who died. Most of the survivors are in critical condition, suffering from shock, cuts and bruises.

Despite the concerted efforts of the joint European search and rescue operation under FRONTEX, which has saved tens of thousands of lives this year, the Mediterranean Sea continues to be the deadliest route for refugees and migrants.

Many of the people arriving by sea in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, come from countries affected by violence and conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; they are in need of international protection and they are often physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized.

UNHCR appeals to all governments involved to provide comprehensive responses and act with humanity and in accordance with their international obligations.

While these numbers are overwhelming for the already overstretched capacity of single countries, such as Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Hungary, Serbia or Germany, they are manageable through collaborative and coordinated responses at the European level. All European countries and the EU must act together in response to the growing emergency and demonstrate responsibility and solidarity.

    For more information on this topic, please contact:
  • In Rome, Carlotta Sami, on mobile +39 335 679 47 46
  • In Rome, Barbara Molinario on mobile +39 33 85 46 29 32
  • In Athens, Katarina Kitidi on mobile +30 693 7115656
  • In Athens, Stella Nanou on mobile +30 693 79 34 515
  • In Paris, Celine Schmitt on mobile + 33 6 23 16 11 78
  • In Geneva, William Spindler on mobile +41 79 217 3011