GENEVA (Reuters) - The European Union must quickly establish adequate centers to receive and register asylum seekers in Greece and Italy and then distribute them across the bloc before winter sets in, the United Nations said on Friday.
More than 591,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean by sea this year, including 450,000 to Greece, and this week 85 boats have been arriving daily on the island of Lesbos, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said.
“We don’t know the full reasons for this surge in arrivals: it could be the result of a temporary improvement in the weather, a rush to beat the onset of winter and a fear that European borders may soon close,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing.
Seven people drowned on Thursday, among them a baby and three children, after their wooden boat and a coast guard vessel crashed during a rescue operation off Lesbos, the Greek coast guard said.
Violence at a crowded registration site on Lesbos on Thursday forced UNHCR staff to evacuate briefly, Edwards said.
He said facilities in Sicily, Greece and other areas “haven’t been adequate to cope with the numbers,” adding: “This is not a crisis that at the moment is being adequately managed.”
The EU has approved a plan to share out 160,000 refugees, mostly Syrians and Eritreans, across its 28 states to tackle the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two. The first 19 Eritrean asylum seekers were transferred from Italy to Sweden a week ago.
The U.N. Children’s Fund voiced concern about the under-18s who make the perilous journey through Europe without their families. It has set up seven “child-friendly spaces” along the borders of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia that help 100-200 children a day.
“It’s a respite, because people are moving and they don’t want to stay long,” Afshan Khan, director of UNICEF’s office of Emergency Programmes, told Reuters in an interview.
UNICEF estimates that children account for 18 percent of those seeking refuge in Europe. Some 3,900 unaccompanied children were recorded in Macedonia between June and October, while 14,000 unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Sweden this year, she said.
Khan warned against granting asylum more easily to children of certain nationalities fleeing war than to others.
She added: “If they’re making this hazardous journey, there is something that is driving them and their families that is fundamentally tragic and precarious to make this journey.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams/Ruth Pitchford