A record number of 137,000 people made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in the first six months of 2015, most of them fleeing war, conflict and persecution from various regions, the United Nations said on Wednesday. "Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions," warned the agency.
The report also warned that the number of people making the crossing had swelled 83% in the first half of 2015 as compared to the last year.
The situation is expected to worsen as more clement summer weather allows ruthless human traffickers to dispatch more people on the dangerous crossing, often in rickety boats and at the mercy of smugglers.
The immigration crisis is a burning issue for the EU, where member states have been wrangling over the best ways to tackle human trafficking and arguing over how to share the burden of helping new arrivals, many of them ill, starving and destitute.
The soaring numbers arriving in Italy and Greece, before moving on to other northern European states in the hope of finding jobs, has sparked outcry and growing anti-foreigner rhetoric in many countries.
It hailed Brussel's decision to redistribute 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum-seekers who have already arrived in Europe, but called on for greater solidarity between countries to help both migrants and the states carrying the heaviest load.
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres stressed most of those attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean are not economic migrants.
"Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution," he said in a statement.
A third of those who have arrived by sea in Italy or Greece this year came from war-ravaged Syria, while people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Eritrea's repressive regime each made up 12% of arrivals.
Other top countries of origin include conflict-wrecked Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan, the report said.
This year has also seen a sharp increase in the numbers of people dying as they try to cross the Mediterranean. So far 1,867 have been killed -- 1,308 of them in April alone.