Greece sees risk of ‘bloodshed’ in migrant-crowded island

A Spanish tourist watches Pakistani refugees arrive on Kos. [Reuters]

Greece dispatched extra police on the island of Kos after its mayor warned of bloodshed if the tensions created by the massive arrival of immigrants worsen, the Greek press reported.

Meanwhile, human rights groups denounced the ‘disgraceful’ conditions in other EU countries trying to cope with the surge in refugees.

Among the migrants still hoping to reach Europe, many gather nightly on Turkey’s southern Aegean coast to make the five-kilometre (three-mile) sea crossing to the resort island of Kos.

The asylum seekers use inflatable boats designed for beach tourists which, despite the tempting proximity of Kos, are wholly unsuited for the trip.

Greece has sent a passenger ship and extra riot police to Kos, as tensions mount over an influx of migrants and refugees.

The ship was converted into a reception centre to process arrivals and would dock in the main port of the island, the minister said.

Brutal conditions were reported on Kos earlier this week, with a single water hose and just two toilets for over 1,000 migrants crammed into a football stadium under baking sun waiting for travel papers.

Two riot police units were dispatched to Kos from Athens and police reinforcements from nearby islands were also drafted in, police said.

The extra police deployment came after the island’s mayor, Giorgos Kiritsis, warned of “bloodshed” if the situation on the island of 33,000 people – where around 7,000 migrants are waiting to apply for immigration papers – worsened.

“Two units, or 40 men, have arrived in Kos. Other reinforcements are being sent from other eastern Aegean islands,” a police spokesman said.

Earlier this week, police beat back migrants with truncheons and sprayed them with fire extinguishers to prevent a stampede as mostly Afghan and Syrian asylum seekers were being relocated to a local football stadium after camping along roads and beaches for weeks.

Mayor Kiritsis said the situation had “calmed” but was still tense as thousands of migrants await registration.

Greece is broke, but now has to deal with a flood of refugees fleeing war and poverty.

The European Union pledged Friday (14 August) to fast track new funding to help debt-hit Greece cope with the surge in migrants, with hundreds coming ashore daily, only to be confronted by often hellish conditions.

>>Read: Emergency funds sprout up to temper storm of refugee crises

Greece is just one of the flashpoints of a refugee crisis erupting across Europe. Housing is particularly a concern, with rights activists slamming conditions for refugees in Austria, and asylum seekers in Germany getting a decidedly mixed welcome.

Some 124,000 refugees and migrants landed on the Greek islands during the first seven months of the year — up 750% from 2014, according to UN figures.

And about 102,000 people have traveled from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy so far this year — compared to 2014, when 170,000 made the trip during the entire year, the International Organization for Migration.

Activists were cautiously positive about the new funding for Greece, while calling for a bolder response to the refugee crisis.

“Today’s measures announced by the Commission, if correctly channelled towards those in need, may help support the country and vulnerable people,” said Iverna McGowan, acting Director for Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

“But overall a broader rethink of EU asylum policies and practices is needed,” she added.

‘Disgraceful’ conditions in Austria

On Friday, Amnesty International slammed conditions at Austria’s main refugee camp as a “disgraceful” violation of human rights, highlighting what it called the “inhumane” plight of more than 1,700 unaccompanied children.

The human rights organisation visited the Traiskirchen camp, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Vienna, last week, a day after the overcrowded centre stopped accepting new arrivals because of disastrous sanitary conditions.

Built to house 1,800 people, the camp, and an adjacent government building, are currently home to 4,000 men, women and children.

“The situation of unaccompanied children and adolescents is particularly precarious,” Amnesty spokeswoman Daniela Pichler said at a news conference.

Across the border in Germany, record numbers of refugees have arrived, only to face another kind of chaos than the one they fled – desperately overcrowded shelters struggling under the massive influx.

In uglier cases, xenophobic protesters and far-right thugs have hounded and abused the foreigners. The number of attacks on homes for asylum seekers has shot above 200 this year, already reaching last year’s total.

But in a more heartening trend, citizens moved by the plight of strangers have organised through schools, churches and Facebook groups to give what they can, from food to baby clothes to language lessons and even shelter.

On Sunday (16 August) Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday condemned a surge in German attacks on refugee shelters and warned that the issue of asylum could become a bigger challenge for the European Union than the Greek debt crisis.

Asked about more than 200 arson attacks against homes for asylum seekers seen in Germany this year as the country faces a record influx of refugees, Merkel said: “That is unworthy of our country.”

Merkel warned that waves of refugees would “preoccupy Europe much, much more than the issue of Greece and the stability of the euro”.

“The issue of asylum could be the next major European project, in which we show whether we are really able to take joint action,” she told ZDF public television.

For Germany, where some officials have said the number of asylum seekers could top 600,000 this year, Merkel said the issue posed particular challenges.

With thousands of refugees sleeping in tents and authorities saying they are overwhelmed with applications, Merkel said the current situation was “absolutely unsatisfactory”.

She called for the European Union to establish a list of safe countries of origin, where citizens are not under threat of violence or persecution.

Last week, Germany’s interior minister said it was “unacceptable” that 40% of asylum-seekers in his country were from the Balkans, calling it “an embarrassment for Europe”.

About half of Germany’s 300,000 asylum applications since January have come from the southeast European region that includes Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Berlin is looking at ways to deter such claims in order to better serve people from crisis zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UN refugee agency has said the number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit.

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