Nearly 500,000 migrants reached Greece in quarter four – EU border agency

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Nearly half a million irregular migrants arrived in Greece in the last three months of 2015, most of whom then moved north through the Balkans, data from EU border agency Frontex showed on Thursday.

Frontex, which collates data on the number of irregular border crossings, recorded 484,000 such incidents on the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece between October and December and 466,000 on the Western Balkan route, notably people re-entering the European Union at the Croatian border from non-EU Serbia.

That took the total number of illegal EU border crossings, not using regular crossing points, to 978,300 in the quarter, a record since Frontex began collating such data in 2007.

Of those arriving in Greece, mostly on islands off the Turkish coast, 46 percent said they were Syrian and 28 percent Afghan, Frontex said.

It recorded a drop in arrivals in Italy from Libya but noted a sharp increase in arrivals in Spain from Morocco, albeit at a low level. There were 2,800 illegal crossings in the fourth quarter on the Western Mediterranean route, it said, a record for that season and double that in the same period of 2014.

Meanwhile, five migrants, including a baby, hoping to reach Europe via Greece drowned when their speedboat capsized off the Turkish coast, Dogan News Agency said on Thursday.

The Turkish Coast Guard rescued nine people after they called for help late on Wednesday and recovered five bodies, it said. The group, comprised of Afghans and Iranians, were trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea.

The European Union has offered Turkey billions of euros in aid to curb illegal migration. Under a draft deal struck on Monday, Turkey agreed to take back all irregular migrants in exchange for more funding, faster visa liberalisation for Turks, and a speeding up of Ankara’s long-stalled EU membership talks.

The aim is to discourage illegal migrants and break the grip of human smugglers who have sent them on perilous journeys across the Aegean. But migrants have continued to try to cross from Turkey’s coast in recent days.

More than 130,000 people this year have reached Europe from Turkey, which borders Iran and conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, while 350 people have died on the perilous journey, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

More than 35,000 people are trapped at the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni as Europe tries to close the Balkan route to foreigners fleeing violence and economic upheaval.