Monday, 26 January 2015

Syriza to name government soon

Greece's new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, was due to announce the makeup of his cabinet on Tuesday. Greek media reports have said that he intends to name only ten ministers, down from the current 18, telescoping several ministries under larger administrative clusters. His party has apparently submitted a legal document to the Council of State, Greece's highest administrative court, detailing the changes as follows: 

1. Finance Ministry (as is). 
2. Development ministry (to include the ministries of the Merchant Marine, Tourism and Infrastructure).
3. Interior Ministry (to include the ministries of Administrative Reform, Public Order and Macedonia & Thrace). 
4. Environment and Energy Ministry (to include also the Agriculture Ministry and general secretariat of Industry).
5. Education and Culture ministries to be combined into one.
6. Health Ministry to absorb social security.
7. Labour Ministry.
8. Defence.
9. Foreign Affairs.
10. Justice, Transparency and Human Rights.

Tsipras was sworn in on Monday afternoon. Alexis Tsipras will lead a coalition including his own Radical Left Coalition party, Syriza, and the Independent Greeks party.

Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, received more than 36 percent of the vote, beating the incumbent conservatives by seven points. This enables it to field 149 deputies in the 300-seat parliament - two shy of an outright majority. Independent Greeks is a right-wing party that campaigned as a potential coalition partner to Syriza. Syriza and Independent Greeks would command a comfortable majority of 162 seats. 

"As of his moment there is a government," Indepependent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos told reporters on Monday morning, as he emerged from the offices of Syriza, the main victor in Sunday's election, where he had held talks with Tsipras.

"We are giving a confidence vote to premier Alexis Tsipras. The prime minister will today go to the president to be sworn in and announce the makeup of the government," he said.

Talks had also been expected with The River, a centrist, reformist party, though no further mention of this was made on Monday.

Tsipras has until Thursday to announce the makeup of his government. 

Syriza has campaigned on a platform of ridding Greece of austerity policies dictated by its Eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund. Those policies have helped Greece balance its budget but have also raised unemployment to 25 percent. Syriza has also vowed to renegotiate the terms of debt repayment to the Eurozone and IMF, which lent it 240bn euros. 

That debt is deemed unsustainable to the Greek economy and rescheduling it has been a political issue since 2012 - in other words for the duration of the outgoing socialist-conservative coalition's term in office; but talks on achieving this were never started. Syriza has said it wants up to half the debt forgiven and repayment of the rest extended by decades. 

Syriza has softened its message over the past three years - no longer threatening unilateral default. Instead it says it heralds a new, anti-austerity majority not just in Greece but across Europe. And it is basing much of its power to sway creditors, on the perception that the political time is right for them to forgive some Greek debt.

"I assure you that the new Greek government will be ready to co-operate and negotiate with our partners a fair, mutually beneficial and sustainable solution," Tsipras told a crowd of cheering supporters on Sunday night. "Greece will come to this dialogue with its own proposals, its own national reform plan, and its own four-year development plan.. There will no fatal disagreement (with partners) but also no continuation of austerity." Tsipras also promised not to repeat the tax-and-spend policies, which led Greece into debt, but to maintain a balanced budget. 

Yet Greeks' anger is mixed with fear that they could still be forced out of the euro if they cannot meet debt payments. Even Tsipras admits that the negotiation must be over by July, when government bonds worth some ten billion dollars come due. Until then, Greece has to survive on home-grown tax revenues. Those revenues fell sharply in the last few months. Greece missed its target of a 5bn euro primary surplus, bringing in just under 2bn euros in tax revenue above spending for 2014, the finance ministry announced on Monday. 

Outgoing conservative prime minister Antonis Samaras declared himself satisfied. "My conscience is clear. I took over a country on the brink of disaster. I was asked to hold burning coals in by hands. Most people gave us few chances of survival; but survive we did. We avoided the worst case scenario. We rid the country of deficits and the recession. We restored national credibility and prestige." His New Democracy party slipped only two points relative to its 2012 performance; but their junior coalition partners fared far worse. 

"The [election] result does not satisfy us at all given our efforts and our candour," declared socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos, whose Pasok party got 4.68 percent of the vote, less than half its 2012 performance. He added, "I am sure that Syriza is aware of the enormous responsibilities it is shouldering." The socialist camp was split by the emergence of former socialist leader Yiorgos Papandreou under a rival banner. Venizelos announced that Pasok would hold a congress to reconstitute itself. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The new Greek government could face a financial siege

This article was published by Al jazeera International. 

At election rallies across Greece, the main opposition party, the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, promises to lead a European revolution against austerity.

Millions of pairs of eyes have turned to Greece, to see whether after five years of patience, of painful and unwavering efforts, Greece can lift its head. We will prove that when people are determined they can defeat even the greatest enemy,” declared Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, at a recent rally in the northern city of Komotini.

Tsipras’ supporters are a mix of traditional leftists and the newly dispossessed. The former see the prospect of Greece’s first ever left wing government as a historic moment. The Greek communist party, KKE, lost a civil war 65 years ago in pursuit of this goal. Syriza, which was formed in 1989 as an attempt to unite Greece’s fragmented communist groups, now represents the left’s best hope of achieving it. 

The majority of Syriza’s supporters, however, are not dyed-in-the-wool ideologues. They are people like Uzinel, a city bus driver who quit his job after his 1,200 euro monthly salary fell by half. “It used to cost me 300 euros a month just to drive in to work, so I was working for 280 euros,” he said as he braved the January cold, waiting for Tsipras to arrive at the rally. “Tsipras says he will restore minimum wage to 750 euros. That is decent.” Uzinel now supports his family by farming sugarcane and tomatoes.

Many Greeks are willing to admit that the country’s $42bn [36bn euros] deficit needed to be tamed; but five years of government spending cuts that finally balanced the budget last year also helped deprive Greece of a quarter of its economy, and produced unemployment of over 25 percent. In a controversial report published in May 2013, the International Monetary Fund admitted that it had greatly underestimated the recessionary effect of the public spending cuts it ordered the Greeks to make.  

Now that the government is finally raising more in taxes than it is spending, its new challenge is to meet scheduled debt repayments. That task is absorbing more than its hard-won surplus, forcing it to keep borrowing and keeping it in what Syriza’s chief economist, Yiannis Milios, calls an “austerity trap”.

Syriza’s main election promise is to renegotiate the terms under which Greece would repay $280bn [240bn euros] lent to it by fellow Eurozone members and the International Monetary Fund to ease the period of adjustment. It wants its creditors to write off up to half of that debt and allow Greece to delay repayment of the rest until it enjoys healthy growth rates.

“We have always said that a debt servicing cannot deprive the country of the valuable resources which are needed for social cohesion and growth,” Milios tells Al Jazeera. “And there are now many voices in Europe who agree with us… Deflation, recession, high unemployment are not only Greek problems. They are problems of all the European south and they have started also being problems in the northern countries.”

Leftists, who formed the backbone of the Greek resistance during Nazi occupation, are fond of reminding Germany that it was effectively relieved of the damages claims of the countries it had fought and occupied, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. “I think the so-called German economic wonder wouldn’t have taken place if this decision wasn’t made in the London conference of 1953,” says Milios.

Rebellion against the debt trap resounds with Greek voters, who now owe an unprecedented $200bn (173bn euros) to banks, social security and the taxman – a sum equal to the country’s output.

Not everyone is convinced that Syriza can pull off a successful negotiation with creditors. Anger at the recession is mixed with fear that the country’s fragile recovery may become derailed.

“I don’t trust them. Are we just going to wake up the day after the election and find that all our problems have been solved? I don’t think so,” says Popi Giouzelidou, a clothes shop owner on Komotini’s main square. “Where are they going to find the money? And why didn’t they work with the conservatives as a national unity government? I think they just want power.”

Strictly speaking, Syriza is not winning this election as much as the incumbent coalition of conservatives and socialists is losing it. Its current approval rating of around 30 percent is only marginally greater than what voters gave it in the last general election, two and a half years ago. The ruling New Democracy and Pasok parties, however, have together lost roughly 10 percent of the vote. Under Greece’s election law, that will deprive them of a 50-seat bonus in parliament awarded to the top party.

Syriza has already gone against the majority in triggering this election. By refusing to back the government’s candidate for president, which requires bipartisan support, it invoked a constitutional dissolution of parliament last December. Public opinion, as expressed in recent polls, favoured continuity and political consensus.

Before the 2012 elections Syriza had again gone against majority opinion by openly threatening to unilaterally stop debt repayments, forcing it to leave the Eurozone with potentially ruinous results for the currency. More than two thirds of Greeks have consistently polled as favouring the euro over a return to the drachma.

While Syriza is now careful to back a negotiated rescheduling of debt, its strategy still hinges on leveraging Greece’s nuisance value. Its argument now is that denying the Greeks satisfaction would be politically incorrect. “You’re worried that if a Syriza government comes along… the almighty Germans or whoever else will chop off our head, stick it on a pike and carry it around saying, ‘here’s what happens to people who vote for Syriza’,” Yiannis Dragasakis, a senior Syriza policymaker, recently told a panel of fellow-economists. “Does anyone believe that such a Europe has any kind of future?”

Syriza faces a difficult negotiation. Creditors have frozen $8.8bn (7.6bn euros) in loan disbursements until Greece completes its negotiation, and the current government has exhausted a $17.4bn (15bn euro) ceiling of bond sales under its oversight programme. A Syriza government’s only source of revenue, therefore, will be taxes; but public tax revenues collapsed in the last three months of 2014, cutting a projected $7bn (6.1bn euro) primary surplus by two thirds.

Eurozone finance ministers are preparing to extend the negotiation deadline by six months, to September. Such a prolonged negotiation would amount to a siege. Senior banking sources tell Al Jazeera that Greece only has cash reserves to service the debt, pay public servants and shore up the pension system through February.

“The cash reserves are definitely until the end of March and in addition there are many options that the Greek state can use to have another 2-3 months without any real problem,” insists Syriza MP Yiorgos Stathakis, an economics professor widely thought to be in line for the crucial finance portfolio. “At any rate as soon as we form the government I think political stability will improve the performance of tax receipts.”

Even if a Syriza government manages to draw out talks to the deadline, it is highly unlikely to be able to make good on $12bn (11bn euros) in social spending it has promised. Stathakis, who is the most moderate of Syriza’s economic policymakers, says the party would implement at least a $2bn (1.8bn euro) portion of the programme that would provide food, electricity and healthcare for the poorest Greeks.

“The Greek programme has failed completely,” he says. “We have to go back to the table, find a new solution with our partners. That’s the only way.”

Monday, 1 December 2014

War refugees caught in a no man’s land

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Earlier this month, the Greek port of Igoumenitsa became the scene of a late-night arrest. A 23 year-old Syrian man attempted to board a ferry bound for Italy. An employee spotted his slight figure amid the lumbering trucks and walked him out of the leviathan to waiting officers of the coast guard.

“I will try again. What can I do?” the man, Annas Khalifa, told Al Jazeera amid the din of truck engines. “Even in Greece they do not want us. If we go to a different country this is good for them too, because it takes away a responsibility.”

An estimated 30,000 irregular migrants, most of them Syrian war refugees, are expected to cross into Greece on their way to central Europe this year – a twofold increase on last year’s figure. In the process they bump, moth-like, against invisible security curtains stretching across several borders. Those who can, spend thousands of dollars on increasingly professional smuggling rings, capable of transporting them from Turkey to Germany in under a month. Most, like Khalifa, cannot, and they are accumulating in Greece, posing a policy dilemma for Greek authorities.

Khalifa faced his own dilemma when he reached conscription age two years ago: “If you fight with Assad you will kill your family. If you don’t fight with Assad what you can do?” he asks. “You join the Free Army; and see what’s happened in the Free Army – a lot of groups fighting each other.”

He now wants to complete his degree in electronic engineering. “My mission is to invent stuff,” he says. “In Germany I’ve heard they can support you with free education, so that is my decision.”

Khalifa followed a path trodden by many of his compatriots. He spent most of the last two years in Turkey, working illegally for $350 a month and saving up for his $1,000 seat on a rubber dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Kos. He then made his way across Greece on boats and buses. Unwisely, he had spent most of his money - $4,000 - on a fake EU residence permit Igoumenitsa authorities confiscated.

The mountains that surround Igoumenitsa are full of migrants in Khalifa’s situation. By day, the forest floor is littered with plastic water bottles, carrier bags, snack wrappers and discarded clothing. By night, the forest comes to life with the voices of Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians, choosing their moment to jump onto trucks as they queue up for security inspections.

“The risk of stowaways is highest on busy nights, when the truck queue goes back for a kilometre into the darkness,” says a coast guard officer. An unmarked police van makes sudden sorties onto the highway, sometimes catching migrants in its high beams.

When they catch us, some police take us and go prison and some of them leave us,” says Faraideen, a 16 year-old Afghan who fled to avoid being pressed into service for the Taliban.

Like Khalifa, Faraideen has chosen education over war; and like Khalifa, he is penniless. As in every trade, however, there are better classes of service for those who can pay.

“The biggest challenge we face is finding the crypts that are built into trucks, not just to stop illegal migration, but also to prevent these people from injuring themselves,” says Antonis Mazis, the coast guard chief here.

Igoumenitsa is a mere six hours from Istanbul along a new highway. Some 100,000 articulated lorries annually traverse its sparkling white concrete from east to west. Checking them all is a mammoth task, but the coast guard sports a rotating collection of confiscated vehicles – a museum of smugglers’ ingenuity.

A flatbed truck carried a cargo of cottonseed over a false bottom, which could conceal dozens of migrants lying down. Another had a hatch in the roof of the driver’s cabin. In yet another, several Afghan children had been stuffed, Ali-Baba fashion, into plastic olive barrels. One teenager was found suffocated inside a false fuel tank.

Stone seems to be a favourite camouflage material, perhaps because X-ray scanners cannot penetrate it. On one occasion, 16 migrants were found inside two hollowed-out granite slabs. On another, migrants were ensconced amid stacks of flagstones. Perhaps the most ingenious disguise consisted of marble sheets leaning against A-frames and dug out like books. Fourteen Afghans were found inside them, and the coast guard estimates the value of this human cargo at over $50,000.

The cost and elaborateness of these preparations, say officials, suggest deals made in Turkey between organised crime rings and trucking companies, rather than casual contracts with individual drivers along the way.

Usually such deals work. Amjad, a 23 year-old Syrian from Damascus, crossed to the Greek island of Lesvos in mid-October. Within a month he was in Germany, walking and driving through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Hungary and Austria; but the entire trip cost him close to $6,000 in fees to smugglers.


Outside Greece's parliament, dozens of Syrians have pitched camp to protest about the uncertainty of their status here. Some have gone on hunger strike and a few have been hospitalised.

Greek authorities offer Syrians and other war refugees a deportation waiver of up to six months; but they are not allowed to work here. Their children may not enrol in schools, and they are given no documents with which to travel elsewhere legally. 

“We escaped war in Syria. We escaped from killing, bombings and aircraft every day, and our houses are destroyed,” says Jamal al Abdullah, one of the protesters. “We escaped to another country to get our human rights. But we didn't find it here in Greece. So we want to get out of Greece to get it.” 

Without the thousands of dollars they need to have themselves smuggled deeper into Europe, these people are charity cases trapped in limbo.

Gian Othman, a 21 year-old lawyer from Aleppo, is another of those trapped in Greece. With a group of friends he tried overland routes, twice through Albania and three times through former Yugoslav Macedonia. He says Albanian police took his and his companions’ cell phones and money, then told them to walk back through the mountains. “They raised their machine guns and told us, ‘go to Greece,’ he says. 

“We have two choices; one, give us our rights, university, work, food, or let us go out of Greece,” he says.

A 2011 Greek law does allow authorities to issue permanent residence permits on humanitarian grounds, but it is a seldom-used option.

“Greece should go to its European partners and say, ‘let’s share the burden across the EU, each in proportion to population,’” says Andreas Takis, associate professor of law at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. “But to do this you’ve got to have a precise record of everyone who’s arrived and have given them some sort of status to be able to say, ‘I have so many resident refugees.’”

He believes that the unspoken policy of allowing people to try to smuggle themselves out of the country is morally wrong. “Turkey is doing it without being in the European Union and having harmonized laws. For us to be doing it, it’s much worse.”

Amjad returns to life

This article was published by UNHCR as part of a series of refugee profiles. 

Amjad was killed two years ago at the age of 21, while studying international relations in Damascus. Government soldiers used him as a human shield as they went from door to door in his apartment building, looking for opposition fighters. Amjad says they found no-one. Nis neighbours had all fled.

When they were finished, they motioned him into a dimly lit bathroom and shot him five times with a Kalashnikov. He fell to the floor covered in blood, but because his side had been turned to the platoon officer who had fired, most of the salvo had gone into his right arm and only one bullet had entered his torso. Two soldiers were left to give him the coup de grace.

The only reason Amjad is able to tell this tale is that he was extraordinarily lucky. “I pretended to be dead and listened to the two soldiers talking inside the flat. They were saying, ‘let’s check to see if he is still alive and finish him off,’” Amjad says. “They opened the door and saw me lying to one side. They kicked me to turn me face-up. I held my breath for 30 seconds, but I couldn’t do it for longer. They said, ‘he’s still alive, finish him.’ And they shot twice.”

The shots missed his head, which was slumped to his left, and went through the shoulder instead. “The distance [between the bullet and his head] was less than a centimetre,” he says. As he stood on the ferry dock in Mytilini harbour, he lifted his black T-shirt to display the entry and exit wounds on his left shoulder and in his right side.

Amjad had raised suspicion because he was also the sole occupant of an apartment building in the opposition-friendly Mohadamiyeh neighbourhood. After receiving medical treatment in Jordan, Amjad returned to continue working as a male nurse in a makeshift underground clinic sponsored by the Red Crescent.

He did not fight, he says, and did not treat any opposition fighters, only civilians. On his smartphone, he scrolls past photographs of his patients – mostly women and children struck by government ordnance. His own need for more sophisticated medical attention, and his desire to complete his degree, made him decide to leave. He cannot properly move his right arm and needs to remove internal prosthetics implanted during surgery in Jordan.

Perhaps it helps to survive this predicament that Amjad is twice a refugee. He was born to a Palestinian family, which had fled Israel for Lebanon, and fled again to Syria after the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres in September 1982.

Palestinians were welcomed in Syria under Hafez al Assad, father of today’s president, but they are now seen as upstarts. Amjad shows me an old photograph of Hafez al Assad honouring an uncle of his for helping to smuggle Palestinians out of Lebanon and into Syria. That uncle is now under arrest.

“Since I was 14 or 15 we all followed politics,” Amjad says when I ask him why he signed up for international relations, “so I chose it to help my people in the future.” When we spoke for the last time he was on his way to Germany, but was keeping his options open. “I could live in any country as long as I have dignity,” he said.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Amina’s flight

This article was published by the UNHCR*.

“You can’t do anything with empty hands,” says Amina, an Afghan refugee. She’s frustrated with her inability to help her children start new lives in Europe empty-handed. “If you don’t have anything, you can’t do anything,” she says.

Amina and her husband lived in Tehran for two decades. Two of her four children were born there. The family had sought refuge from the Taliban’s war, which in 1996 swept away the last remnants of Soviet rule by overthrowing the Najibullah government and imposing sharia law across most of the country.

Two years ago, Amina and her family became refugees from a different kind of violence. “We left Iran because my husband was killed by his uncle and cousins. The reason was a dispute over division of property,” she says.

The property was a hectare of farmland and a house, which Amina's husband was trying to secure for his children. Two years ago, he went on a trip to Afghanistan. “My husband did not tell me why he was going to Afghanistan, but it was to discuss the property issue. Then a month later his cousins came and found him and knifed him.” Her children spent ten days watching their father die in hospital.

Amina's life changed drastically. She had no income. “I raised my children with great difficulty. We left Tehran and went to Mashhad, but found we couldn’t live there either.” 

Early last summer, Amina received warning from her husband’s family that her children weren’t safe. “The cousins are still chasing us – they want to kill my children to prevent them from inheriting the land,” she says. Her brother, a farmer, put up the money to smuggle them to Europe.

“From Iran to Turkey we paid two million toman per person ($600), and from Turkey to here $2,000 dollars per person.” 

She recalls their journey: “A car came to the border and took us up a mountain. We walked for 4-5 hours, and waited for several more hours and were met by another car, which took us into Turkey.”

Despite the vast sums she had paid, Amina's smugglers also robber her of a further 2,800 euros. “My brother had put money in an account. In Istanbul the smugglers took us to pick it up, and as we waited at a red light they slipped it out of my son’s pocket. The Turkish police told us that we could file a report, but since we were travelling without documents we would also be put in jail.”

The family spent only a week in Turkey. On the ninth night after they left Iran, they were put in a rubber boat holding about 45 people and pushed off the Turkish coast, pointed in the direction of the Greek island of Lesvos.

“We spent four hours on the sea, bailing out water and praying to Allah. The waves had taken us far. When we reached Lesvos, we walked for several hours. We saw a house, knocked, and asked the man who lived there to call the police. He gave us food and water and called the police, who took us to the holding cells.”

The family tried to trek to Germany. They were arrested in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and sent back. They went back to living in a municipal summer camp on Lesvos, and are fed by volunteers. They have now applied for asylum here. Her daughter, who is 12, has started an induction course to enter Greek school. Asked what she’d like to study in university, she says, “Mathematics.”

*This article is part of a series of profiles published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help highlight the plight of those fleeing war- and famine-torn regions of central Asia, the Middle East and Africa towards Europe. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Political storm clouds again gather over Greece

Greece may be approaching a new political and economic crisis, reflected in nervous markets. Greek 10-year borrowing costs jumped more than two points this week to 8.96 percent on October 16. During the same period, the Athens Stock Market fell by a third, to 869 points from 1,260. 

Conservative party MP Adonis Georgiadis blamed the developments on statements by the left wing main opposition party, Syriza. "When the Syriza government comes to renegotiate our loans, which will happen soon, the question of at least a 50 percent writedown of the country's public debt and of repayment of the remaining part on the basis of growth will come up," Yiorgos Stathakis, Syriza's shadow development minister is quoted as having said on Monday. 

On the same day, the conservative-led government approached the Eurogroup with a proposal to extricate itself from the International Monetary Fund's adjustment programme at the end of the year, when he Eurozone's period of oversight ends, rather than mid-2016. 

Achieving this could remove the opposition's main stick - the country's memorandum of austerity and reform. 

The memorandum mandates fiscal austerity, banking reform, economic reform and political transparency, some of which has been carried out, but much of which remains to be done. It has become a symbol of lost sovereignty and social disintegration. 

At the same time, the government is trying to negotiate a rescheduling of debt with its Eurozone partners, which would allow it to lower its annual premium and achieve a full budget surplus, not just a primary surplus. Greece achieved a 2.9bn euro primary surplus in 2013, and expects a 6.1bn euro primary surplus this year. 

All this is rendered urgent by a looming general election. This is likely by next April, and possibly before. Parliament must elect a new president by the end of March with a three-fifths majority - which is currently beyond the ruling coalition. Failure to do so would trigger an election. Parties are already jostling for alliances and beginning the process of drafting ballots. 

The political mixture is as toxic as it was in the last general election in 2012. The government is reform-fatigued and voters are tax-fatigued, so while the country may still be on track to achieve 0.6 percent growth this year, this may no longer be enough to make businesses or taxpayers happy. In fact, the mild rate of improvement may work against the ruling coalition of socialists and conservatives. 

The economy is improving fast enough to allow people to feel they can risk a change of government (polls now put Syriza ahead by several points), but not fast enough to feel optimistic about staying the present course (recent polls show that half of Greeks believe the economy and unemployment will worsen, while only about one in ten expects improvement). 

The slowness of the recovery is also failing to lift the prospects of the less fortunate, creating a two-tier society. September labour ministry data revealed a marginal rise in unemployment, and that six in ten of the jobs that were created are not full-time. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, almost four million people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion - 36 percent of the population. A large proportion the the population cannot eat protein every other day, pay utility bills or own a colour TV.  

Friday, 3 October 2014

UNHCR warns of worsening refugee crisis in Mediterranean

The number of people attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean - and dying in the attempt - could triple this year compared to last, warns the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"165,000 people have made the crossing so far this year compared to 60,000 for all of 2013 – making 2014 a record year and reflecting the level of desperation among many of those involved," the world's largest humanitarian body says.  

Most alarming, perhaps, is that the rate of crossings and of deaths has accelerated sharply since the beginning of the summer. "In all, 90,000 people crossed to Europe between 1 July and 30 September and at least 2,200 lost their lives, compared to 75,000 people and 800 deaths for the period between 1 January and 30 June." 

The UNHCR attributes the rise partly to renewed civil war in Libya and an exodus of asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. 

It calls for "Europe to commit more resources for rescue at sea in the Mediterranean and step up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages." Among the legal alternatives suggested in the past are asylum application points that would be set up in safe countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Lebanon. 

"We are failing to heed the lessons from the terrible events of last October," said High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterrez on the one-year anniversary of a migrant boat sinking off Lampedusa, in which some 400 Somalis and Eritreans died. "More and more refugees are drowning trying to reach safety," he said. 

Approximately 500 people drowned off the coast of Malta on September 10, when the fishing trawler they were headed to Italy in was deliberately rammed by another vessel. Only 11 people survived