More than 100,000 migrants – many fleeing the war in Syria – have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe so far this year, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday – and the arrivals in Greece have reached their highest level since the crisis began.
Citing national figures, the UNHCR said 54,000 people had traveled illegally to Italy and 48,000 to Greece so far in 2015, with another small fraction heading for Spain and Malta.
The numbers were announced as the European Union is struggling to persuade its 28 nations to adopt a quota system aimed at making the crossings less dangerous and easing the burden on Mediterranean countries.
In Italy, nearly 6,000 people were picked up over the weekend by a host of ships taking part in the EU-mandated Mediterranean rescue operation. Most were sub-Saharan African migrants who had set off from Libya.
The Italian coast guard and navy ships on Tuesday brought hundreds of migrants to shore in Sicily after having rescued them over the last few days. Officers wearing surgical masks and white coveralls directed the migrants to a processing tent set up at Pozzallo, a port in southern Sicily.
AP Television footage showed one officer dragging an immigrant out of a cabin and striking another man sitting on the deck of a rescue vessel.
In Greece, authorities said 457 people had been rescued from the sea in 12 separate incidents off the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kalymnos, and Kos – islands that all face the coast of Turkey – in 24 hours from Monday morning.
Another 304 people had made their way ashore Monday to Lesvos' main port of Mytilene.
The UN agency said about half of the 600 people who arrive daily in Greece are heading to Lesvos – where numbers have shot up from 737 in in January to 7,200 in May.
"Record numbers of the refugees are arriving in flimsy rubber dinghies and wooden boats on the Greek island of Lesvos, putting an enormous strain on its capacity, services and resources," it said.
Few migrants want to remain in debt-stricken Greece, where unemployment runs above 26 percent. Most aim to make their way to the more prosperous countries of Europe's center and north. They usually travel by land across Greece's northern border with Macedonia or cross the Ionian and Adriatic seas smuggled aboard ferries into Italy.
The International Organization for Migration said Greek arrivals this year have already exceeded the 2014 total. It's tally was almost identical to that of the UNHCR: 54,660 in Italy and 46,150 in Greece.
According to the European Union's border protection agency, Frontex, Syrians made up the largest group of people crossing illegally into the EU last year, followed by Afghans and Iraqis.