Thousands of refugees leave for Greek mainland as crisis spirals out of control
ATHENS - A Greek government-chartered ferry was transporting some 2,600 Syrian refugees to the Greek mainland on Wednesday, as islands struggling with an influx of migrants warned that the crisis is endangering public health.
The Eleftherios Venizelos left the island of Kos with some 1,700 Syrian refugees on board and was expected to arrive in the northern port city of Thessaloniki on Thursday morning, after calling at the islands of Kalymnos, Leros and Lesbos to pick up another 900 people.
The Syrians will be put on buses to the border with Macedonia, officials said.
"The situation is out of control," Leros mayor Michalis Kolias said in a letter to the government, asking for help in getting hundreds of migrants off the island.
"The lives of irregular migrants and of the island's residents and visitors are in danger," Kolias said, pointing to health risks from overcrowding.
A record 107,500 migrants arrived at the European Union's borders last month, according to new figures released by border agency Frontex, a dramatic increase that is creating a humanitarian crisis for the 28-nation bloc.
Greece has seen around 160,000 migrants -- virtually all of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq -- land on its shores since January, according to the UN refugee agency.
The Greek Aegean islands close to Turkey have borne the brunt of the influx, with authorities overwhelmed and rights groups criticising miserable conditions facing the migrants, who are often forced to sleep in the open for weeks and queue for days to secure departure papers.
The government has announced plans to charter a second ship to move as many migrants as possible to the mainland, but with the tourism season in full-swing there are no large vessels to spare, the association of ferry operators said Wednesday.
"There are no ferries available at present (and) next week there will be a problem as the ferries will be at near 100 percent capacity," association chairman Michalis Sakellis told Vima radio.
Greece is giving Syrian refugees priority in registration and embarkation for the mainland, over other nationalities such as Afghans and Pakistanis.
On Lesbos, scuffles have routinely broken out between non-Syrian migrants stuck on the island, and an aid group on Tuesday warned the situation was reaching "breaking point".
"Unless further ships are made available the total number of refugees on Lesbos, which normally has a population of nearly 90,000 people, could rise to more than 20,000 before the ferry service is able to accommodate them," the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said.
The small islands of Symi and Agathonisi, where there are more migrants than locals, also called on the government for assistance on Wednesday.
"I hope no more migrants come because the available space at the coastguard and police buildings is already taken by others," Symi mayor Lefteris Papakalodoukas told state television.