A bout of mild weather brought more tragedy off the coasts of Italy and Greece on Thursday when at least 31 people died attempting perilous crossings from Libya and Turkey, authorities in both countries said.
Greek authorities recovered 25 bodies off the island of Samos, while another six were retrieved by the Italian navy – the first known deaths on the North Africa to Italy route this year. Those who had set off from the shores of Turkey were thought to be Iraqi Kurds. At least half of the victims were women and children.
Coast guard officials in Italy said they had rescued a total of 290 migrants throughout Thursday. They had attempted to make the passage in three rubber boats, one of which had nearly capsized by the time authorities reached it. On Tuesday the Italian coast guard had rescued 1,271 migrants attempting to cross from Libya.
The wave of migration from the Turkish coast to Greece’s outlying Aegean islands shows no sign of slowing.
“This time last year we had registered 740 arrivals,” said Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, one of the islands that has received a large number of migrants. “And in the first 25 days of this year we have seen 25,000 arrive. I can’t imagine what the numbers will be like come the spring and summer.”
Greece’s inability either to control the flow or to register refugees efficiently elicited fierce criticism this week from the European commission.
The country was warned that it had three months to address serious failures in its handling of the influx, or it could face a two-year suspension from the passport-free Schengen zone.
The warning – triggered by a draft evaluation report due to be released next month – has provoked outrage in Athens, where irate officials countered that Brussels was acting in flagrant disregard of the principles of European solidarity.
Yiannis Mouzalas, the minister in charge of migration policy, insisted that Greece should not be blamed for having more than 2,000 islands and a coastline that, at nearly 14,000km, is the longest in Europe. Ringfencing the country, he claimed, would only turn it into a “cemetery of souls”.
“Greece is doing the best that it can,” he told the Guardian. “The immigration flow from Turkey is not the fault of Greece and punishing Greece is not the way to go about it. For what? Because we don’t let refugees drown.”
Greece’s leftist-led administration has said repeatedly that requests for more frontier guards from the EU border agency, Frontex, have gone unanswered. With the government clearly bristling at the criticism, officials have snapped that Athens has spent over €2bn in hosting refugees – money it has been forced to find during its worst economic crisis in recent history.
The discovery that two of the assailants in the Paris attacks last November were believed to have entered Europe through the Greek island of Lerosprompted the EU to dispatch inspectors to border areas in Greece to assess their security.
Admitting there had been deficiencies in the documentation of irregular migrants, Mouzalas blamed the lack of equipment Greece had been given.
“When they did the report in November we had about 40 [fingerprint] machines and each one, working 24 hours, could register about 100 people – or 4,000 a day,” he said. “At the time we had tens of thousands of refugees, so it is true that we didn’t do the registration as it should have been done, but with the number of machines we had, we did our best.”
Isolating Greece would not only be wrong but totally counterproductive for Europe at large, he said.
“If they close the passage at Idomeni [on the Greek-Macedonian border] then they close off the only legal point from which Europe and Greece can register who is entering,” he added. “And if they do that, they will only increase illegal immigration as people choose alternative routes.”