Global attention has focused on Greece’s brush with financial collapse over the past few weeks. But meanwhile, one of the other great crises facing Europe has continued out of the spotlight, with a steady stream of migrants arriving in Athens.
Shading himself from the scorching sun in a busy Athens square was a Syrian refugee named Haisam, one of 800 to 1,000 who ended up in the Greek capital on Thursday, stranded in a recession-hit city not equipped to receive him.
“We arrived this morning, around 1,000 of us, mostly Syrians. We have no food, water or accommodation. We are desperate,” he said, standing on a corner of the central Athens Omonia square with his brother Uiseam and other migrants.
The Greek capital was used to arrivals of about 120 migrants daily. On Thursday (16 July), the number jumped, and it is expected to keep rising, as a growing number of arrivals reach the eastern islands of Lesbos, Chios and Kos from Turkey, trying to make their way to other European Union countries.
They arrive in Athens by paying for their fare on passenger ferries, shipping company officials say. But the capital has no public infrastructure to help them, city officials said.
“We can arrange no accommodation or food for them. All they can do is try to get access to the regular help that is provided daily for the homeless people of Athens. And that’s not unlimited,” a spokeswoman from the mayor’s office said.
More than 77,000 people have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year. More than 60 percent of them Syrians, with others fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia, the United Nations refugee agency said last week.
Greece, which has often been criticised by human rights groups for its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, urgently needs help to cope with 1,000 refugees arriving each day, the UNHCR said. It called on the EU to step in before the humanitarian situation deteriorates further.
But the EU failed to reach a deal to help resolve a migration crisis in the Mediterranean, and instead set a deadline for 20 July to find agreement on how to share out 40,000 asylum seekers currently in Italy and Greece.
“After arriving at (Athens’) Piraeus port this morning, we all came to the center of Athens, at Omonia square,” said Mohammad Talap, a 20-year-old who fled the city of Daraa in Syria.
“We were on Kos island for 12 days. We had serious problems and went through lot of hardship, having no food and water, while everybody was asking us for (our identity) papers, papers after papers.’
Talap said he wants to travel away from recession-hit Greece to EU economic powerhouse Germany. “But I have no money to do that. I am hoping my family in Syria will manage to send me some money, but so far I couldn’t even contact them as the government is bombing my city.”
If banks reopen in Greece as expected next week, getting additional funds wired from abroad may be easier, at least for those with friends who can help.
For the rest, another official said there was nothing they could do: “They’re on their own.”
On 27 May, the European Commission proposed the relocation of 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, as well as the resettlement of 20,000 from outside the EU, across member states. The executive's scheme needs to be adopted by the Council of the European Union, voting by qualified majority.
It was clear from the outset that the proposal stood no chance of being accepted by most member states, given the reactions of EU leaders at the extraordinary summit on migration on 23 April.
It also became obvious that many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing, but believe that the proposed quotas need to be reworked.