BERLIN (AP) — The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to southern Europe was more than 80 percent higher in the first half of 2015 than a year earlier, with deaths initially soaring before dropping back as rescue efforts at sea were stepped up, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday.
The routes taken by refugees and migrants also shifted, with Greece overtaking Italy to become the primary point of arrival, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
Data from Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain showed 137,000 people arriving there between January and June, an 83-percent increase from 75,000 in the first half of last year, the agency said in a report. It noted that crossings usually increase in the year's second half, particularly during summer.
By far, the largest group of refugees was from Syria. In all, 43,900 Syrians arrived in Europe by sea, 34 percent of the total. Eritreans accounted for 12 percent of the new arrivals and Afghans 11 percent.
UNHCR says the number of people who died making the risky crossing totaled 1,867, up from 588 a year earlier.
However, it said there was a dramatic drop after an unprecedented 1,308 people died in April. The agency counted 68 deaths in May and 12 in June, a fraction of the number reported a year earlier.
The spike in deaths prompted European Union nations to promise ships and other equipment to help rescue migrants.
Over the whole of 2014, more than 75 percent of refugees and migrants making the sea crossing to Europe landed in Italy, while Greece received less than one-fifth.
However, over this year's first six months, 68,000 people landed on the Greek islands — slightly more than the 67,500 who arrived in Italy, UNHCR said.
EU nations have bickered over sharing the burden of hosting the refugees.
"Europe has a clear responsibility to help those seeking protection from war and persecution," UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said.
"To deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build," he added. "European countries must shoulder their fair share in responding to the refugee crisis, at home and abroad."