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Refugees perish at sea, as total migrants to Europe in October hit record high

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Alkis Konstantinidis

(Read caption) A Syrian refugee covered with a blanket arrives aboard the passenger ferry Eleftherios Venizelos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, November 2, 2015. The number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea last month was roughly the same as for the whole of 2014, United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Monday.

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As news broke of the 11 migrants, including six infants, who drowned off the Greek island of Samos Sunday, the prevalence of such tragedy can now be put into a disturbing context.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees who arrived in Europe in October alone equals nearly the total number for all of 2014.

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By sea alone, 218,394 migrants and refugees reached the shores of Europe last month. The tally of total arrivals for the entire year in 2014 was 219,000, according to UNHCR.

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Greece has been an exceptionally common destination for the refugees – a burden with which the country is grappling. It’s been a major transit point for more than 570,000 escaping conflict in the Middle East.

The Greek coast guard said it rescued more than 1,400 people in the eastern Aegean sea over the weekend, in nearly 40 search operations, according to NBC News. At least 70 people have drowned in the past week, en route to the Greek islands. And this year, UNHCR says, 3,440 either have drowned or been declared missing while traveling from the Mediterranean to Europe.

The 11 migrants who drowned when their boat capsized were trapped in the cabin. On that same boat, 15 others were rescued near the coast of Samos.

"We recovered 11 drowned bodies, 10 of which were trapped inside the vessel's cabin," a coast guard official told Reuters. He added that the dead included four babies, two children and four women.

The mayor of Lesbos, Greece, told NBC that the unpleasant weather hasn’t been a deterrent to travel for the refugees and asylum seekers. The route from Turkey to Greece, in particular, is short but risky. Due to recent autumn winds and low temperatures, the number of deaths in this crossing has been rising.

"Throughout last week the weather was really bad but the influx did not decline," Mayor Spyros Galinos said. He added that it was “pure luck” anyone could make the journey in small, wooden boats – “floating caskets,” he called them. The refugees often pay huge sums of money to people smugglers without any guarantee of safety.

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"Yesterday we held 5 funerals, but there are still 55 bodies at the morgue," the mayor continued. "Who could have anticipated such a carnage in the Aegean?"

Responding to the extent of such tragedy, Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras has condemned Europe’s lack of resolution in the face of “endless grief.”

Addressing his country’s parliament last week, he said he feels shame to be part of the ineffective European leadership.

"These are hypocritical, crocodile tears which are being shed for the dead children on the shores of the Aegean,” he said. “Dead children always incite sorrow, but what about the children that are alive who come in thousands and are stacked on the streets? Nobody likes them."

Already exceeding the anticipated number for 2015, over 744,000 migrants have arrived by sea this year. The majority – 53 percent – of the refugees and asylum seekers are from Syria, followed by 18 percent from Afghanistan and 6 percent from Iraq.

Meanwhile, the EU agreed last week to provide shelter for 100,000 people before the year is over. Half will be set up in Greece and the rest in Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. An additional $6.5 million will be aided to Greece for the next four months.

Still, experts are doubtful such provisions will be enough. Around 50,000 people arrive to the islands every week. And so far, according to the Wall Street Journal, only nine of the EU’s 28 states have offered to take in a total of 854 refugees.