(The Guardian) Figures released by Greek police show arrivals jumping from a total of 11,500 in 2013 to 12,500 for the first three months of 2015
Authorities are reporting a three-fold increase in arrivals to Greece this year as Europe’s escalating migrant crisis intensifies along the Mediterranean’s eastern rim.
While the focus has been on Italy where record numbers lost their lives in the treacherous sea crossing from Libya this week, the surge in refugees fleeing war and repression is also straining resources in Greece.
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“We are seeing an influx that is three times greater than it was this time last year and the summer has yet to begin,” said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, who heads the crisis-hit country’s United Nation’s refugee mission.
“The vast majority are refugees from Syria,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “There is a constant stream turning up on islands [abutting Turkey] which is putting a huge amount of pressure on local societies and an infrastructure that cannot cope.”
In the past 48 hours alone, more than 800 migrants and asylum seekers had arrived on Greece’s outlying Aegean islands, according to officials.
Media has shown boatloads of mostly Syrians and Somalis disembarking at the port of Piraeus after being processed at reception centres on the islands. On Wednesday, hundreds could be seen congregating in the squares of Athens, relieved that they had finally reached the EU but desperate for shelter and food.
“The loss of hope is pushing them here,” added Tsarbopoulos. “While attention is now on the central Mediterranean because it has become the most dangerous crossing, the problem is very big in Greece.”
Figures released by Greek police show arrivals jumping from a total of 11,500 in 2013 to 12,500 for the first three months of 2015. The UNHCR, which has representations on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Rhodes and Kos and monitors the country’s borders, estimates that the number this year is even bigger. “We believe it is closer to 20,000,” Tsarbopoulos said.
Most elect to enter the country with the help of unscrupulous smugglers on rickety boats. Refugees and migrants arriving by sea have increased dramatically in the three years since Athens erected a 10.5km-long fence along the land frontier it shares with Turkey. Making the dangerous journey this week, a heavily pregnant woman from Cameroon gave birth to twins moments before traffickers purposely slashed and sunk the inflatable dinghy in which she was travelling.
The incident highlighted the extent to which desperate migrants are prepared to go to get into Europe.
Late on Tuesday, a man found hiding in the undercarriage of a bus bound for Italy from western Greece was pronounced dead after falling unconscious. The death came two days after a wooden yacht crammed with more than 90 Syrians ran aground in rough seas off the southern island of Rhodes. Despite heroic attempts by astonished locals to rescue its passengers – most of whom were non-swimmers – three drowned, including a young child.
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As the nearest EU member to the Middle East after Cyprus, Greece is a transit route for those determined to reach Europe’s wealthier northern states.
But with the debt-stricken country mired in its worst crisis in modern times, and budgets stretched to breaking point as Athens desperately tries to keep afloat, authorities are plainly struggling.
Xenophobia and racist violence have soared in recent years as Greeks, enraged by austerity, have turned to the far-right Golden Dawn.
The new leftist-led government has adopted a more humane approach, closing detention camps and stopping “push-backs” by coastguards long decried by human rights groups.
For the first time a migration minister has been appointed who has vowed to respect international treaties and improve conditions by setting up reception centres.
But officials also say the country cannot shoulder the influx alone with Athens clearly hoping that Thursday’s emergency EU summit will elicit a coordinated response to tackle the humanitarian disaster now growing on Europe’s southern shores.
Calling the Italian premier to express his condolences over the migrant tragedy that sparked the meeting, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, insisted that now, more than ever, southern Europe needed the help of its partners.
“We need the solidarity of the European Union to deal with the problem,” an aide quoted the leader as saying. “Our countries shouldn’t be turned into warehouses of [lost] souls and our seas into warehouses for the dead.”