Deadliest January on record for refugees raises alarm

As 244 die on the way to Europe in one month, rights groups warn that safer routes of passage must be provided.

File photograph shows a volunteer carrying a Syrian refugee child off an overcrowded dinghy at a beach after the migrants crossed part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos
At least 244 people have died on their way to Europe so far in January while fleeing war and persecution, according to the IOM [Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

The number of refugees who have died while trying to reach Europe has surged to a January record of more than 230 people, fuelling panic that much more needs to be done to prevent further deaths.

As of January 29, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded the deaths of at least 244 refugees and migrants who tried to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, nearly three times the 82 people who died last January, and overwhelmingly more than the 12 people who died in January 2014.

Some 55,528 refugees and migrants have arrived to Europe so far this year, according to the IOM.

UNHCR figures are similar. The UN’s refugee agency reports that 236 people died or went misisng from January 1 until January 29, with arrivals by sea at 54,518 people.

Both counts are regularly used by human rights organisations.

With two days to go until February, this month is the deadliest January on record.

Possible solutions

To combat this phenomenon, human rights groups and individuals working to improve the plight of refugees suggest that governments should provide safer routes of passage and better legal avenues, such as issuing humanitarian passports.

READ MORE: 2015 – The year of the desperate journey

“This has happened because many more people are desperate to flee their countries to come to Europe to find a safe haven,” Eva Cossé, a Greece-based researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.

“Even though the distance is small between the Aegean Islands and Turkey, currents are strong and overcrowded rubber boats can’t carry that many people.

“People are wearing fake life jackets; if there is a shipwreck, people drown.”

The distance between the Turkish coast and Lesbos, a main arrival island, is about three miles.

“We need a collective response [from the European Union] to ensure these people have a safe passage to Europe, to ensure that people don’t risk their lives to reach Greece.

“I’ve been on the islands many times. Greek authorities are stretched. More assistance is needed in the search and rescue operations.”

Blaming Greece

In recent weeks, Greece has become increasingly isolated on the European diplomatic stage. Some EU interior ministers have blamed the country for not doing enough to stem the flow of refugees, threatening as punishment expulsion from the Schengen Area.

“It’s a sea border. How can it [Greece] secure the border? By erecting a floating fence?” HRW’s Cossé said. “Once a boat is in Greek waters, there is an obligation to save them…There is little the Greek government can do.”

READ MORE: Greece reacts to EU’s hard line on refugees

With 3,771 deaths, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, the IOM has said. By comparison 3,279 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean in 2014. 

Globally, IOM estimated that over 5,350 migrants died last year.

Mark Micallef, executive editor of Migrant Report, told Al Jazeera, that the number of people trying to cross from Turkey is rising amid a sense of dread that Europe’s borders will soon close.

“Demand is growing. The impression I get from speaking to migrants in Turkey is that there is a widespread sensation that Europe is about to shut the door; there is a surge of people who want to get out just in case something happens,” he said, adding that more people have died in the Aegean sea this year compared to last January when more bodies, proportionally, were found in the central Mediterranean.

Migrant Report is a non-profit project that measures, investigates and documents the effect of human movement.

“Smugglers are taking advantage of this demand and the relatively short distance. They are giving migrants unsuitable jackets, and putting too many refugees on boats that are not fit for purpose,” said Micallef.

The fee to reach Lesbos from Turkey is currently between $600 and $700, said Micallef. Prices jump to between $1,000 and $2,000 in the summer when better, safer weather lifts demand.

Return to Turkey?

To reduce the growth in numbers crossing, and subsequently the deaths, there should be more support for countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where refugee populations are huge, said Micallef.

“These countries need assistance,” he said. “Turkey needs to be encouraged to provide rights and legal protection. Right now, if you are refugee, you can’t work there legally.”

READ MORE: Can Turkey stem the refugee tide?

Meanwhile, to ease pressure on Athens and stem the flow of people, Dutch officials are weighing a plan to ferry refugees arriving in Greece back to Turkey.

“Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for refugees,” Kondylia Gogou, Amnesty International’s Greece and Cyprus researcher, told Al Jazeera. “In recent months, refugees have been illegally returned to Iraq and Syria, while refugees from other countries face years in limbo before their asylum claims will ever be heard. 

“A large-scale resettlement scheme for refugees from Turkey to the EU is a good idea, but making it conditional on the swift return of those crossing the border irregularly is tantamount to bartering in human lives.”

Amnesty estimates that in January 2016, more than 160 people have drowned in their attempt to cross the Aegean, including many children.

“In recent years, blocking one route to Europe has inevitably led to refugees taking another, often more dangerous, route to seek protection,” explained Gogou.

“Offering safe, legal routes to Europe is the only sustainable solution for the refugee situation. Now refugees often take more dangerous routes include the sea route to seek protection and we see a dramatic increase in shipwrecks and deaths.”

READ MORE: Toddler becomes first refugee to drown in 2016

‘Tragic and infuriating’ 

On Thursday, at least 25 people, including 18 children, were reported to have died after a boat carrying refugees capsized in the eastern Aegean.

At least 43 people drowned last Friday when two boats capsized in Greek waters, most of them women and children.

As many as 3,000 people continue to arrive in Greece daily, despite dangerous weather conditions.

Matthew Cassel, a filmmaker and former Al Jazeera journalist who has volunteered in Lesbos, has witnessed scenes of death as refugees arrived.

“It’s tragic to see a body lying on the beach, but more than anything else it’s infuriating when you think about how unnecessary the trip was,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Our governments are responsible for this, and not only for closing their borders to refugees and migrants, but also for playing a role in whatever happened at home that caused them to leave in the first place.

“It’s a surreal experience when bodies of refugees arrive on the Greek islands.

“The times that I’ve been there, I haven’t seen any police or other authorities present, just a handful of volunteers and journalists who, despite their best efforts, aren’t qualified to deal with these situations.”

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera