Greece’s Crete and Gavdos islands see surge in migrant boats from Libya

ATHENS (Reuters) – The Greek islands of Crete and Gavdos have seen a steep rise in migrant boats landing on their shores from Libya this year, U.N. data shows, piling pressure on ill-equipped authorities and raising fears of a new smuggling route in the Mediterranean Sea.

More than 1,075 migrants – mostly from Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan – have arrived on the islands this year, up from 860 in the whole of 2023, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

Greece has been a favoured gateway to the European Union for migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015 when nearly 1 million people landed on its islands, causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Thousands of others died at sea.

Crete and its tiny neighbour Gavdos, which are relatively isolated in the central Mediterranean, had until now not been favoured by migrants over other islands further east near Turkey.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Migration Minister Dimitri Kairidis told a local TV station on Wednesday. “The numbers are small … but the trend is showing a momentum which is troubling us.”

Gavdos Mayor Lilian Stefanaki told Reuters that since the weekend boats carrying dozens of people had been arriving almost daily. Around 63 migrants were currently on the island awaiting transportation to Crete. Gavdos has about 60 permanent residents and one police officer, she said.

Neither Gavdos nor Crete have migrant facilities. New arrivals were sheltering in an abandoned building on Gavdos or disused children’s camps on Crete. The UNHCR, which does not have a presence on Crete, sent supplies including sleeping bags and hygiene kits.

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“This is a big burden for us. We’re a small island, we haven’t got supplies or shops. Food is a big problem. Our finances are limited,” Stefanaki said.

Most migrant arrivals to Europe this year have been to Spain, followed by Greece and Italy, according to U.N. data. Historically, boats that leave Libya in north Africa generally have gone to Italy.

“It appears that most of the boats travelling from Libya to Crete and Gavdos are heading directly to Greece, rather than being accidental detours,” said Stella Nanou, spokesperson for UNHCR Greece, adding it was soon too say whether it would become an established route.

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