The number of migrants arriving on Greek shores soared by 408% over the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period last year, driven in large part by a surge in Syrians fleeing the brutal civil war in their country.
UN data shows that received more boat arrivals than any other European country in the first half of 2015, with about 101,000 migrants arriving on Greek shores between 1 January and 17 July, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
Migrant flows usually increase over the summer months, when the Mediterranean sea is calmer and boat crossings are less risky. More than 31,000 migrants arrived in Greece by boat in June alone, the data showed. In contrast, the country received a relatively modest 3,452 migrants in June 2014.
Italy is also a popular entry point to Europe for many migrants. Italy received the second-most boat arrivals over the first half of this year, with 79,469 people arriving between 1 January and 14 July, .
Figures published by the UN show that 44,709 Syrians arrived in Greece by boat between January and June 2015. By 17 July, that figure had risen closer to 60,000, the UN said.
Afghans were the second most common nationality to make the journey, with 20,000 arrivals. Figures covering up to the end of June show that 3,558 Iraqis and 1,259 Somalis arrived on Greek shores.
Refugees interviewed in recent months in Greece and further along the migration route through eastern say that there are several reasons for the huge rise in arrivals to the Greek islands. For a start, the Turkish coastguard has made it far harder for boats to leave Turkey for Italy, making Greece and Bulgaria the only options left for most migrants.
Additionally, the ongoing war in Libya has made it less appealing as a launch pad for boat trips to Europe, in addition to which the country is now far harder to reach. North African countries like Egypt, Algeria and Sudan used to be easily accessible way-stations on the route to Libya – but have recently all tightened their visa regulations for Syrians.
Just as significantly, the increasingly intractable nature of the war in has prompted thousands more Syrians to flee their country, and persuaded many of the 2 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey that there is little prospect of them returning home in the near future. As a result, many are now considering their long-term options, and for most Europe is inevitably a more attractive option than Turkey.
“I thought I could make something in Turkey,” said Nasser, a Syrian-Palestinian artist from Yarmouk camp, who fled to Turkey with his family several months ago, and then to Greece earlier this summer. “But the Turks would make us work extra hours and pay us half of what they’d pay the Turkish men. And I want to end up in a place where I can find myself.”
Greece’s migration crisis is putting pressure on an already strained economy struggling with unemployment. “Greece’s volatile economic situation, combined with the increasing numbers of new arrivals, is putting severe strain on small island communities, which lack the basic infrastructure and services to adequately respond to the growing humanitarian needs,” .
About 38,100 migrants arrived by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos between the beginning of the year and 10 July, the UNHCR said. Other islands accepting large amounts of migrants include Chios, with 15,200, Kos (12,700) and Samos (6,300).