More than 100,000 migrants made the perilous crossing over the Mediterranean to Europe this year, the United Nations said Tuesday, reporting a huge spike in arrivals that will add to Europe's migration worries.
The immigration crisis is a burning issue for EU governments with member states trying to put in place ways of tackling human trafficking, while arguing over how to share the burden of the tide of people arriving on the continent's shores.
Since January, 103,000 refugees and migrants have risked their lives often on flimsy boats to reach Europe, the UN refugee agency said.
UNHCR "is stepping up its presence in Greece and in southern Italy in response to the dramatic increase in numbers of refugees and migrants who we have been seeing arriving," spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.
A frantic weekend of rescues saw nearly 6,000 people, most of them sub-Saharan Africans, pulled to safety from packed fishing boats and rubber dinghies off Libya, and taken to Italy, bringing the year's total of new arrivals in the country to 54,000.
Pregnant women and children were among those picked up in the weekend's major international rescue operation, coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard, Edwards said.
While the numbers arriving in Italy mark about a 10-percent increase on the same period last year, the situation in neighbouring Greece has worsened dramatically.
A full 48,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores so far this year, compared to 34,000 arrivals during all of 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Another 920 have arrived in Spain this year and 91 in Malta, according to the fresh statistics from UNHCR.
- Mass drownings -
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Those who made it to shore were the lucky ones. Mass drownings in the Mediterranean have claimed nearly 1,800 lives so far this year, according to IOM.
Some 800 died in a single sinking in April, marking the biggest maritime disaster in the Mediterranean since World War II, and prompting European governments to significantly increase Mediterranean search and rescue operations.
There has been a significant surge in especially Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants trying to reach Greece's Aegean islands from the Turkish coast recently, mirroring the swell in perilous crossings from north Africa to Italy.
The Greek islands have recently been receiving an average of 600 migrants daily, with around half of them landing on the island of Lesvos, Edwards said.
"Record numbers of refugees are continuing to arrive in rubber dinghies and wooden boats on Lesvos, putting huge strain on the island's capacity and resources," he said, warning that reception facilities were vastly overstretched.
There are currently as many as 2,500 on the island waiting for registration by the authorities, he pointed out.
Nearly half of them were at the main screening centre in the village of Moria, which is housing more than 1,000 refugees -- more than twice its official capacity of 410 people, he said.
UNHCR, Edwards said, was calling for "urgent reinforcement of personnel and resources of all the state services and civil society organisations dealing with the reception of refugees."
"We are also seeking increased support to the affected island communities," he said.
The IOM meanwhile said in a statement that the weekend rescue operation was "a prelude to what is expected to be a surge of migrant crossings in the months ahead."
The organisation warned that "calm weather in the Mediterranean encourages smugglers to fill unseaworthy open boats with vulnerable people aboard, among them refugees and economic migrants."