Many fear they will not be able to continue journey as new border controls by Balkan states leave thousands trapped.
The number of refugees flowing into Europe has soared in the first two months of the year amid tighter borders and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, prompting warnings from agencies and rights groups of a “looming humanitarian crisis”.
On Tuesday, the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said that 131,724 people made the journey across the Mediterranean during January and February, with 122,637 refugees landing in Greece.
“This is approaching the total for the first half of 2015, [when] 147,209 [arrived],” said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.
At least 418 refugees died on their way to Europe in the first two months of the year, compared with 428 in the same period last year, the International Organization for Migration said.
The IOM estimated that of the 321 who died on the Eastern Mediterranean route, which ends in Greece, 77 were children – an average exceeding one child death per day.
Many predicted that the number of refugees would rise to a new record in 2016. In 2015, more than one million refugees fled to Europe by sea.
The IOM said: “With 10 months [of 2016] left, it now appears likely that last year’s total will be surpassed, possibly before the end of the summer.”
Last Wednesday, in a bid to stem the flow, Austria and nine Balkan states agreed to grant entry only to those “in proved need of protection” – a move which sharply reduced the intake and effectively excluded refugees from Afghanistan, a country where civilian casualties reached a record 11,000 in 2015.
The decision triggered desperate scenes in Greece as refugees trying to move on to other European countries were faced with tighter controls.
Up to 25,000 refugees are stranded in Greece, and Immigration Minister Yannis Mouzalas says that number could rise to 70,000 in March.
“Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis,” UNHCR’s Edwards added. “This is in light of a rapid build-up of people in an already struggling Greece, with governments not working together despite having already reached agreements in a number of areas, and country after country imposing new border restrictions.
“Inconsistent practices are causing unnecessary suffering and risk being at variance with EU and international law standards.“
Most refugees arrive from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Greece, many are sleeping rough and have to queue for hours for food.
On Monday at the Greece-Macedonia border, Macedonian police fired tear gas at refugees who tried to break through a razor wire fence to continue their journey.
“The increase in arrivals is the result of conflicts that are still raging in Syria and Iraq,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told Al Jazeera.
“We’re also seeing an increasingly difficult situation for refugees in host countries. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have so many refugees that the numbers are becoming increasingly difficult to manage.”
‘Looming humanitarian disaster’
Turkey is the world’s biggest host of refugees; more than 2.2 million Syrians have sought their escape there since the civil war erupted six years ago.
“There’s a looming humanitarian disaster in Greece,” van Gulik added.
“It’s likely that we’re going to see an increase in arrivals, compared with last year. People are desperate; they are leaving the most horrible conflict situations, places where even hospitals are being bombed.”
She added that the closure of land borders means that more would take to the sea, a far riskier route that has caused almost all deaths of refugees.
With 3,771 deaths, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the IOM. By comparison 3,279 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean in 2014.
Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the European Union – which includes Greece – should work together to solve the refugee crisis.
The EU “has to act as a union”, he said, adding that “it cannot hang individual countries out to dry”.
“[The EU] can absolutely cope with one million people per year. It can screen claims, it can deport people whose claims fail. It has the capacity. It is a political decision not to do that.”
Commenting on the clamping down of European borders, Simpson said: “Unless new restrictions are lifted, then it’s no longer Europe’s refugee crisis. Then it’s Greece’s refugee crisis.
“Greece’s asylum system has long been dismissed as ineffective and unfair, and people should not be returned to Greece. Adding hundreds of thousands of people to an asylum queue would completely paralyse the system, and people would end up without legal status.”
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