Massive arrival of refugees in Greece dwarfs EU’s relocation initiative

Syrian refugees arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Kos. [Reuters]

Greece appealed to its European Union partners yesterday (18 August) to come up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with a growing migrant crisis as new data showed 21,000 refugees landed on Greek shores last week alone.

That number is almost half Greece’s overall refugee intake in 2014 and brings total arrivals this year to 160,000, even as it struggles with a debt crisis that has forced it to accept a third international bailout.

These numbers highlights how small the number of immigrants the Commission is trying to redistribute from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. The European executive proposed a plan to redistribute 24,000 immigrants from Italy and 16, 000 from Greece to the rest of the Union, under a quota system. But the proposal was rejected by EU leaders, and now the goal is to relocate the same number on a voluntary basis, until the end of the year.

>> Read: EU fails to relocate 40,000 migrants

The influx of refugees, mainly from Syria, has strained an already ill-prepared reception system in Greece that relies heavily on volunteers, forcing thousands to camp out in filthy conditions and triggering sporadic clashes and brawls.

A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Geneva said Greece needed to show “much more leadership” in dealing with the crisis.

But Greek officials said they needed better coordination within the European Union. “This problem cannot be solved by imposing stringent legal processes in Greece, and, certainly, not by overturning the boats,” said government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili.

Nor could it be addressed by building fences, she said.

Earlier this month, construction began on a 175 km razor wire border fence in Hungary to deter migrants, while Britain and France have tightened security on the French side of the 30 KM (19 mile) tunnel linking the countries.

>>Read: Hungary to build fence at Serbian border

Greece, which is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in generations, criticised other European countries for being more of a hindrance than a help as bottlenecks were reported not only in getting into the country, but getting out on its northern land borders.

“This country doesn’t have the financial resources or the infrastructure to get through this in a dignified manner,” Gerovassili said.

In addition to overcrowded conditions on some of its Aegean islands, problems were compounded by a lack of transport to take refugees to the Greek mainland at the peak of the summer vacation season.

“There are about 4,000 people waiting for transfer on Lesbos right now and arrivals are continuing,” said Katerina Selacha, a volunteer with Aggalia, a non-governmental organisation on the Greek island. “Conditions are pretty difficult.”

The International Rescue Committee said Lesbos risked “reaching breaking point” due to the spike in the number of arrivals over the past few days and the inability for refugees to leave.

“The situation is already volatile and we have started seeing increased tensions with the local authorities and between different refugee groups,” said Kirk Day, the aid agency’s emergency field director on the island.

UNHCR officials said only three Greek islands had organised reception facilities for refugees but that they were inadequate.

There were chaotic scenes on the island of Kos last week, where local police locked migrants in an outdoors athletics stadium to process them. On one occasion police used fire extinguishers to keep crowds back.

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

The Greek state eventually charted a passenger ship to house and process migrants in an attempt to ease conditions onshore, where many are living in tents, some in shelters made from cardboard boxes.

Gerovassili said more reception centres were required.

“We must have new reception facilities … We cannot continue to see these tragic images of children, people living under such circumstances.” 

‘A bigger challenge than the debt crisis’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday warned that the issue of asylum could become a bigger challenge for the European Union than the Greek debt crisis.

“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 German public broadcaster ZDF.

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.

The German government will sharply raise its forecast for the number of asylum-seekers expected to arrive this year to a record-breaking 750,000, coalition sources said on Tuesday.

The increase, from a previous estimate of 450,000, is the latest sign of how a huge influx of migrants and refugees, many fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, is straining the European Union’s ability to cope.

Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner, said he expects 700,000 to 800,000 arrivals this year.

In Brussels, the European Union’s border control agency said nearly 110,000 migrants were tracked entering the EU in July by irregular means, setting a record, with nearly 340,000 in all seen arriving in the EU so far this year.

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