Greece to improve conditions for refugees following drownings

At least 12 Syrian refugees, including eight children, drowned heading for Kos

 A young refugee rests with her family on  the Blue Star ferry bound for Athens from Kos. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A young refugee rests with her family on the Blue Star ferry bound for Athens from Kos. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

 

Greece’s caretaker government has said it will take immediate steps to improve conditions for the thousands of refugees and migrants that have arrived in the country by boat from neighbouring Turkey and to extend support for communities on the islands where they land.

The measures include creating a co-ordination centre to manage the flow of refugees and boosting staff to speed up documentation and identification procedures.

The announcement by the interim administration in Athens, which will run the country until a new government is appointed after a general election on September 20th, followed the drowning of at least 12 Syrian refugees, including eight children, as they left the Turkish coast for the Greek island of Kos.

Distressing photographs taken on a beach near the Turkish city of Bodrum showed the lifeless body of a young child, lying face down and wearing a red T-shirt, blue shorts and toddler’s shoes, who had been washed ashore. Other images showed a gendarme carrying the corpse away. The pictures later went viral on social media under the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, Turkish for “humanity washed ashore”.

In recent months, Greece has become the prime gateway for Syrian refugees and other migrants to enter the European Union. Upon receiving temporary residence documents, they then continue their journey to their intended destinations elsewhere in Europe, mainly Germany and Sweden.

According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration, of the 350,000 migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean this year, two-thirds landed in Greece. Last week alone, more than 23,000 refugees and migrants arrived on Greek shores, nearly double the previous week’s arrivals, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

The island of Lesvos receives half of the refugees and migrants, followed by Samos (26 per cent), Kos (14 per cent) and Chios, Leros and other smaller islands, local government figures suggest.

The sheer number of arrivals, coupled with the weak presence of official and NGO personnel to deal with it, has left the volunteer groups of residents that have sprung up on the islands struggling to provide even basic care for the refugees.

Ferry boats which have been chartered to sail around the clock to bring the refugees from the islands to Piraeus port, near Athens, have similarly been unable to keep up with the numbers. On Monday night, over 4,200 passengers, the majority of them Syrians, disembarked from two ships that had gathered from the Aegean islands, including Lesvos, where thousands more await their turn to continue their journey.

Greece’s caretaker migration minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, said he hoped “the implementation of the specific measures will give a breather to the islands”.

Mr Mouzalas, who as a member of the Doctors of the World visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey near the border last year, appealed for the EU to do more to absorb the numbers arriving in Greece in order to avert an endless crisis.

Recognising the issue Greece was facing was also essential in helping it cope. “There is no migration issue . . . it is a refugee issue,” he told journalists after the government meeting.