Over one million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015, nearly half of them Syrians, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.
The milestone marks an almost five-fold increase over 2014 figures, when UNHCR recorded 219,000 arrivals via the perilous sea crossing. "The vast majority of those attempting this dangerous crossing are in need of international protection," the agency said.
The massive movement of people this year in Europe, most of them seeking refuge from conflict, has exposed deep divisions among EU leaders on how to deal with the influx. In total, 1,000,573 made their way across the Mediterranean since January 1, while 3,735 people who attempted the journey died or went missing, the UN agency said.
Greece was by far the top landing spot with 844,176 arrivals, followed by Italy, a distant second with 152,700 migrants landing on its shores. The figures underscore the enormous impact that Syria's nearly five-year civil war has had on changing migration patterns.
The conflict has forced more than four million people to flee the country, but until this year, an overwhelming majority of them were spread among Syria's neighbours. While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey continue to host massive numbers of Syrians displaced by war, the UN figures show that beginning in the spring increasingly large numbers of Syrians resolved to reach Europe.
In June, more than 50,000 people crossed the sea, a number that shot up to over 150,000 by September, culminating in a record 218,000 crossings in October. After Syrians, Afghans were the second largest group at 21 percent of arrivals this year, followed by Iraqis at eight percent and Eritreans at four.
Other migrants originated in Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali, but in relatively small numbers. The UN has warned that there may be no let up in sea crossings next year, especially if efforts to end the conflict in Syria continue to falter.
Meanwhile, rising anti-migrant rhetoric continues in parts of Europe, with Czech President Milos Zeman called the current wave of refugees "an organised invasion" in remarks at the weekend.
Hungary too has taken a hardline stance on migrants.
Last week, UNHCR and the Council of Europe accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of portraying those fleeing conflict as "criminals, invaders and terrorists based on their religious beliefs and places of origin".