Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants entering and crossing Europe via the Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes (January - April 2017)
In spite of several measures to prevent irregular entries to Europe and irregular movement between European states, refugees and migrants continue to enter the region as well as travel on irregularly from one European country to others, albeit at a significantly reduced scale. In addition, there is very limited access to safe and legal pathways to enter Europe, including for those seeking international protection, and because of challenging conditions in some EU countries where refugees first arrive and slow relocation efforts, and many see little alternative but to cross borders irregularly, despite the multiple risks this entails.
Compared to the first four months of 2016, it has become even more difficult to cross European borders with several European states having introduced additional measures and practices to prevent irregular entries, including of people seeking international protection. While this has resulted in a significant reduction in numbers crossing into Europe from Turkey to Greece by sea, it has also meant that people are now using more diverse (and often more dangerous) routes to enter or cross through Europe.
As a result of dangerous routes to and through Europe, high numbers of refugees and migrants continued to die at Europe’s borders as well as on the way to Europe. In the first four months of 2017, the number of estimated deaths in the Central Mediterranean increased 5 per cent compared to the same period last year with 1,019 refugees and migrants reported dead or missing at sea.
A further 76 persons have also died at sea in the Eastern or Western Mediterranean in the same period.
In addition, as states in the region have continued border restrictions, at least 26 refugees and migrants are known to have died since the start of the year while traveling to or crossing land borders in Europe. Of these, nine have died while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria, seven while crossing through the Balkans and six while trying to cross from Italy to a neighbouring country. In addition, abuses by smugglers, criminal groups, as well as some state authorities continue to be reported at multiple points along the primary routes into and through Europe while women and children continue to face particular risks, including of sexual violence.
In the first four months of the year, the Central Mediterranean route has remained the primary entry point for most to Europe accounting for approximately 74 per cent of entries via one of the three Mediterranean routes. With sea arrivals to Greece having fallen drastically compared to the same period in 2016, increased sea arrivals to Spain have meant that arrivals via the Western Mediterranean now constitute a greater proportion of arrivals to Europe via the three Mediterranean routes.
Many of those using these dangerous routes to enter Europe are in need of international protection. Since the start of the year, most of those using the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus are likely to be in need of international protection and come from countries including Syria,
Afghanistan and Iraq. In Italy, the arrival point for those using the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa, 42 per cent of asylum applications processed so far in 2017 have resulted in applicants being granted some form of protection. Of these, 9 per cent were granted refugee status, another 9 per cent subsidiary protection and 24 per cent were granted humanitarian protection.
With very limited opportunities for resettlement and other complementary pathways, while those seeking to join family members who have already been granted protection in the EU face numerous obstacles to do so, many will continue to see little alternative but to try to enter Europe irregularly.
Between January and April 2017, 5,164 refugees and migrants crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece with the average number of daily arrivals dropping to 39 in April from 45 in January. The numbers crossing in the first four months of 2017 are just a fraction of the over 155,000 refugees and migrants who crossed in the first four months of 2016 due to a combination of factors, including the closure of the so-called Western Balkan route, the introduction of additional visa restrictions, and the EU-Turkey Statement. In 2017 so far, Chios, Lesvos, Samos and Kastellorizo have been the primary arrival sites.
Syrians continue to be the largest group crossing the sea to Greece from Turkey and comprised 38 per cent of arrivals with Iraqis comprising 11 per cent.
Syrians and Iraqis arriving in Greece consist mostly of family groups. In 2017 so far, there has been a greater diversity of nationalities crossing the sea to Greece and unlike in 2016, nationals of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Algeria (both 6 per cent) are among the main arrival groups with Palestinians (5 per cent) rounding out the top 5. Approximately half of arrivals by sea to Greece were male between January and April (49 per cent) with children comprising 29 per cent over the four months.
Women comprised 22 per cent during this period.
In the same time period, the Turkish Coast Guard reported intercepting or rescuing 4,527 refugees and migrants at sea, of which 33 per cent have been in March and 34 per cent in April. In April, the number of persons intercepted/rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard was higher than the number of arrivals on Greek islands for the first time in 2017.
At the Greece-Turkey land border, 660 refugees and migrants have crossed from Turkey since the start of the year, a 54 per cent decrease from during the same period in 2016. Arrivals in April included a group of 64 that was left on a little island on the Greek side of the river to be later rescued by Greek authorities. While the numbers crossing to Greece via the land border have dropped compared to the same period in 2016, since the start of the year Turkish authorities have reported intercepting over 6,500 refugees and migrants attempting to cross the land border to Greece.
In the first four months of 2017, 1,097 unregistered refugees and migrants have been apprehended in Bulgaria with most being apprehended in the interior of the country rather than in border regions shortly after entry. So far, these numbers are 75 per cent lower than in the corresponding period in 2016. Most of those apprehended have been from Afghanistan (49 per cent), Syria (13 per cent) and Iraq (13 per cent). Of the 351 persons apprehended near the Turkish border in this period, 83 per cent have crossed the border in locations other than the official border crossing points and approximately 39 per cent have been Syrians. Bulgaria continues to deploy around 200 military personnel along with Border Police to its borders and in mid-March reported that the fence along its border was almost complete with a stretch of 12km in the Haskovo region due to be completed by the end of May and the final 12km of a 59km stretch near Burgas due to be completed by mid-May 2017.
Since mid-2016, increased numbers of people have started to cross the sea from Turkey to Cyprus.
Between January and April this year, 302 refugees, mostly from Syria, arrived by sea to Cyprus, including many children, compared to just 28 in a single boat in the same period in 2016. Many have reported coming from Idlib via Turkey and several of the arrivals have joined family members already on the island. In March, 13 unaccompanied children from Somalia were amongst the 157 arrivals. Others thought to have been headed to Cyprus have also been intercepted or rescued at sea by Turkish authorities, including a group of 30 Syrians rescued at the end of March after drifting for four days when their captain abandoned them after their boat ran out of fuel.
Refugees and migrants also continue to try to cross directly from Turkey to Italy with 539 persons recorded as having reached Italy from Turkey in 2017 as of the end of April. Most arrivals via this route have been from Iraq with smaller numbers of Pakistanis, Somalis, and Iranians. In addition, several more boats headed to Italy have been rescued off Greek islands or been intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard, including a boat with 172 persons on board in March10 and another with 199 on board in April.
While significantly reduced from the 386 deaths between January and April 2016, 28 persons are known to have died or gone missing at sea in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first four months of 2017. This includes 11 Syrians who drowned while attempting to reach the Greek island of Samos on 24 March. Amongst this group were a Syrian woman and her two children attempting to join her husband in Germany. On 24 April, another 16 people drowned off the coast of Lesvos. So far in 2017, this amounts to one death for every 185 persons who managed to cross by sea to Greece, a higher ratio than between January and April 2016 when the ratio was one death for every 402 persons who were able to cross.
Of the nine refugees and migrants who have died since the start of the year trying to depart Turkey via its land borders, three died of exposure trying to cross to Bulgaria in freezing conditions. The other six died trying to cross to Greece with three drowning while crossing the Evros River, two are thought to have died of exposure in mid-winter, and one died in a car crash when a van driven by smugglers crashed while being pursued by police in northern Greece. This amounts to one death for every 110 persons that crossed by land to Greece, a higher rate of deaths than those crossing from Turkey to Greece by sea.
Push-backs continue to be reported from Greece at the land border with Turkey with refugees and migrants, including women and children, reporting being apprehended in Greece, detained in police stations for several hours then later returned informally across the Evros River without being allowed an opportunity to seek asylum. UNHCR has raised concerns regarding reports about the alleged pushbacks and refoulement at the land border between Greece and Turkey.
UNHCR also continues to receive accounts of pushbacks by Bulgarian authorities to Turkey while vigilante groups have also continued to patrol parts of the Bulgarian border at times, with concerning implications for any refugees and migrants they may apprehend.