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Each year, huge numbers of refugees and migrants attempt to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean toward Europe. Although regional instability across the Middle East and North Africa in recent years has dramatically increased the total number of people arriving in Europe, the pattern throughout has generally stayed the same: Most people travel in the summer months and arrivals drop as winter conditions set in.
In 2014, for instance, the number of sea arrivals stayed more or less the same between August and September but dropped by nearly a third between September and October. The downward trend continued until February, when arrivals picked back up.
This year, however, that hasn't been the case.
"At the moment, we’re not seeing any significant change in the number of arrivals that would indicate a lowering," United Nations Refugee Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told The WorldPost. "In fact, in October we’ve seen more arrivals on the Mediterranean than any month ever before."
More than 179,000 refugees and migrants have crossed into Europe by sea so far this month, according to U.N. data. That number is around 6,000 higher than September's total and over 150,000 higher than in October of last year.
During one Friday-to-Sunday period earlier in the month, more than 28,000 people made the journey, topping weekend highs of summer months, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The worsening weather conditions make the already difficult journey even more treacherous. There have already been cases of hypothermia among refugees and increasingly choppy seas threaten to capsize more boats, as happened in a number of incidents this week. The worst weather months are still ahead, with temperatures likely to significantly drop around December.
Organizations monitoring the migration say that there may be a sense of "now or never" among refugees and migrants, who are hoping to make the journey before conditions get even worse.
“The winter hasn’t arrived in its full fury yet," said IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle. "People are just trying to get in under the wire, and in doing so they’re racing across and taking great risks."
While refugees and migrants are arriving from a multitude of countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, the ongoing civil war in Syria continues to produce the largest portion of refugees to Europe. A little over half of the arrivals are Syrians.
The push to flee Syria has escalated since the beginning of Russia's incursion into the civil war late last month, as intensified fighting has displaced over 120,000 Syrians in October alone.
Bolstered by the Russian airstrikes, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have launched multiple campaigns to take back areas in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. Turkey has seen a noted increase in refugee arrivals as a result of the resurgent fighting, said the country's prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.
Syrian refugees in neighboring countries are also experiencing deteriorating living conditions and dwindling aid, causing many to risk the dangerous journey to Europe.
Families who have been outside the country and out of work for years have had their savings depleted, leaving them with increasingly desperate choices.
The United Nations refugee agency has regional aid plans to help refugees, but many lack funding. The UNHCR's Syrian refugee regional response plan is only 45 percent funded, forcing the organization to impose cutbacks to food aid and other programs. A separate winterization plan, which includes distributing heating fuel and weather-proof sealing for shelters, is better funded though still shy of its goal -- for Syrians it is at 89 percent funding, but for Iraqis it falls far below, at 52 percent.
The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, told Foreign Policy magazine on Wednesday that the number of people entering Europe may still fall as the crisis gets deeper into the winter months. But for now, the unabated flow threatens to strain an already overstretched aid system.
There have been chaotic scenes on Greece's Aegean islands for months as people there struggle to adequately provide aid, something only exacerbated in recent weeks due to the record numbers of migrants arriving.
“Lots of locals and NGOs and others are trying to help, but really the sort of robust reception capacity you need for those numbers simply isn’t there in Greece,” Edwards said.
The European Union agreed on a 17-point plan to help countries coping with the refugee and migrant influx this week, part of which includes adding 100,000 spots to reception centers in Greece and other nations along commonly traveled routes.
“Now the pressure is on to make sure it is effectively implemented and all these protection measures along with it," he said. "Otherwise we are staring into a very worrying winter indeed."
However, groups observing the migration point out that there has been little positive change to the factors that are pushing more and more people to try to reach Europe.
“We don’t know how the numbers are going to go, but obviously it’s unlikely to taper off unless the war in Syria miraculously stops,” Doyle said.
“Probably what we’re going to see is more deaths and more vessels succumbing and more human tragedy.”
The Huffington Post has compiled a list of ways you can help refugees stay safe and warm this winter. For more information click here.
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