The United Nations refugee agency today announced that it is stepping up its presence in the eastern Aegean islands of Greece where in recent weeks, sea arrivals have been averaging some 600 people a day from countries like Syria, Afghanistan Iraq and Turkey, severely straining local reception capacities.
“In the first five months of 2015, over 42,000 people arrived by sea to Greece, most of them refugees,” the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today. “This is six times the level of the same period last year (6,500) and almost the same as the total for all of 2014 (43,500).”
More than 90 per cent of the people arriving are from refugee-producing countries, principally Syria from where over 60 per cent of people came this year, followed by Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea, UNHCR said.
“The refugees cross the eastern Aegean Sea from Turkey in small, flimsy boats and inflatable dinghies,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the UN news briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.
“They are landing in as many as 15 different Greek islands or being rescued at sea by the Greek Coast Guard,” Ms. Fleming said. “The largest arrivals have been on Lesvos, Chios and Samos and the Dodecanese Islands, particularly Kos and Leros. Smaller numbers of refugees have also been crossing through Greece's land border with Turkey at Evros.”
On Kos, where some 7,000 refugees have arrived so far this year, there are no official facilities for those awaiting registration, and conditions are particularly dire.
“In the absence of alternatives, refugees have had to move into an abandoned hotel with no electricity or running water. Hundreds of women, children and men are sleeping in cramped and unsanitary conditions,” she said.
Ms. Fleming went on to say that the large numbers of refugees arriving has led to bottlenecks, as the authorities struggle to identify, register and fingerprint them.
“Refugees awaiting registration, including families with children, have no choice but to sleep in the open,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, many refugees landing on remote beaches, including elderly people and small children, have to walk for miles carrying their meagre belongings because of the lack of transport.”
“There is no regular provision of food or drinking water to refugees, unless they are accommodated in police-run facilities for registration and processing,” she said, noting that “in some of the islands, local volunteers have organised themselves spontaneously and have asked local restaurants and bakeries for food donations to distribute to the refugees who are sleeping rough or in unused buildings.”
To respond to the critical situation in the Greek islands, she said the refugee agency is increasing its personnel in Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, Rhodes, Leros and Evros.
UNHCR is already helping local authorities to improve reception conditions, identify additional accommodation for refugees, provide legal information and counselling to new arrivals and distribute sleeping bags and mats, soap, sanitary towels and other relief items to the most needy.
As of the end of May, almost 90,000 refugees and migrants had crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, including some 46,500 who landed in Italy and the 42,000 in Greece. Smaller arrivals numbers have been recorded in Spain at 920 and Malta at 91, according to UNHCR, which also reported that1,850 refugees or migrants have died or are missing at sea.