More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe so far this year, at triple the rate of arrivals over the first half of 2015.
At least 102,500 have arrived on the Greek islands of Samos, Kos and Lesbos, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Another 7,500 have reached Italy, and in the first six weeks of the year 411 people are known to have died attempting to make the journey.
In 2015 the threshold of 100,000 arrivals was not reached until the end of June. As spring approaches and the weather improves, the rate of arrivals this year is expected to climb further.
The IOM said 20% of the arrivals were from Afghanistan and nearly half were Syrians. On Monday the US and Russia agreed to organise a partial truce involving the Assad regime and most of the Syrian armed opposition, but not Islamic State or the Nusra Front. There are widespread doubts about how effective the ceasefire will be and how long it will last.
The influx of refugees has been met with a chaotic response among European countries. On Friday Austria imposed of a cap on the number of people it would admit each day to 80 asylum seekers and 3,200 people seeking transit to other EU countries. The restriction prompted Macedonia to stop Afghans crossing its border from Greece, triggering riots by Afghans and bitter complaints from Athens and the UN refugee agency, the UNCHR.
The agency said: “These newest restrictive measures risk violating EU law and undermine efforts for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.” It called for a unified approach from Europe.
A UNHCR survey published on Tuesday found that 94% of Syrians arriving in Greece in January had risked the sea crossing to escape war, and 71% of the Afghans surveyed cited conflict and violence. “And yet, with every passing week, it appears some European countries are focusing on keeping refugees and migrants out more than on responsibly managing the flow and working on common solutions,” the agency said.
Greek police rounded up hundreds of Afghan migrants stuck on the Macedonian border and bused them back to an army-built camp near Athens on Tuesday.Medecins Sans Frontieres said its teams had witnessed police in the town of Polykastro “kicking Afghan refugees, including women and children, for refusing to board a bus that would forcibly take them back to Athens”.
MSF said refugees stranded on the border “are being provided with no information, little to no humanitarian assistance and are at risk of violence and abuse”.
It added: “We have denounced the humanitarian consequences of this domino effect time and again, but European governments on this route continue to invent new and arbitrary criteria, with the sole goal of reducing the flow of people – at any cost, and in complete disregard of humanitarian needs. The failure of European governments to find collective and humane answers is only producing chaos, arbitrariness and discrimination.”
The Greek government rebuked Austria for imposing the restrictions and for convening a meeting of western Balkan countries to discuss the migration crisis that excluded Greece. The foreign ministry described the meeting as a “unilateral move which is not at all friendly toward our country”.
Meanwhile, a French judge deferred a ruling on a government plan to demolish part of a refugee and migrant camp in Calais near the entrance to the Channel tunnel. The Belgian government tightened controls on its border with France in anticipation of the Calais camp being closed and in an effort to prevent alternative camps being established inside Belgium.