Hundreds of migrants rescued off eastern Greek islands – Tsipras pledged to again raise island VAT with EU institutions at meeting on refugee crisis.
Athens.- ANA-MPA, AP
The Lesvos morgue has resorted to using a refrigerated container supplied by volunteers and a non-governmental organisation in order to preserve the bodies of refugees drowned in their attempt to cross over from Turkey, island sources said on Friday.
They said a total of 67 bodies have accumulated in the Mytilene Hospital morgue because there is no room to bury them in the section of the town’s cemetery reserved for Muslim refugees drowned making the crossing.
The Lesvos municipality and other bodies on the island are now making efforts to expand a section of the town’s cemetery into a next-door plot of land to make room for the additional bodies. There are currently 80 refugees buried in the cemetery at the moment, the majority of them Muslims, while many are still unidentified, with grave markers bearing only the inscription ‘Afghan’ or ‘Unknown’ and a number and burial date.
Unlike the Christian faith, the Muslim faith does not allow bodies to be exhumed to make space for new ones, while other unidentified bodies are kept indefinitely because the number and burial date correspond to DNA samples taken in case relatives come seeking lost family members.
The plot of land on which the cemetery is to be expanded is owned by a trust handling the property of Mytilene Hospital but this means that there are numerous complex bureaucratic processes that must be negotiated in order for the land to be used as a cemetery.
A DAY WITHOUT DEAD
Greek authorities rescued several hundred migrants from the Aegean Sea off eastern Greek islands in relatively calm waters on Saturday, also reporting the death of a toddler.
The boy, aged 2-3 years, was found off the coast of Lesbos fully clothed, including boots, and wearing an orange life jacket, the Greek coast guard said in a statement.
A coast guard spokeswoman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press, that there were no reports of a missing child from Saturday’s migrant arrivals or rescues.
“Until we identify the boy, we cannot exclude anything,” she said, leaving open the possibility that the child may have drowned before Saturday.
Earlier, Greek authorities had reported that Saturday was the first time in 11 days that no migrant had been reported dead in the Aegean, largely because of favorable weather.
Even with favorable seas, Greece’s coast guard and European Union border agency Frontex rescued a total of 429 migrants in seven separate rescue operations, authorities said. One of the boats was “in a difficult situation” while two others were “rudderless.”
As people flee conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, European countries are struggling to cope with the heavy flow and hostility from anti-migrant groups. Many EU members have been reluctant to take in significant numbers of migrants.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined in her weekly video message the need for “a fairer distribution (of refugees) in Europe.”
Germany has seen 758,000 asylum-seekers arrive between January and October this year and this has resulted in a political backlash for Merkel.
The latest anti-immigrant rally, organized in Berlin by the Alternative for Germany party, drew 5,000 people shouting “Merkel Must Go!”
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Friday pledged to again raise the issue of the VAT rate on Greece’s islands with European institutions, while chairing a meeting with ministers and local authority officials on the refugee crisis.
According to government sources, the meeting agreed to appoint a coordinator for each island that will work with local mayors and the Aegean’s two regional authorities, forming a coordinating body that will meet every 20 days.
Local governors of the North and South Aegean, the mayors of Lesvos, Samos, Kos, Leros and Chios, as well as the bishops of these islands participated in the meeting, along with Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos, Interior Minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis, State Minister Alekos Flambouraris, Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister Terens Quick and government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili.
The discussion focused on the problems and needs that exist, and proposals for meeting the basic survival needs of the refugees and migrants arriving on the islands.
Among the issues addressed were practical aspects of the problem, such as cleaning up pollution caused by non-recyclable or non-biodegradable materials dumped in the sea by arrivals. Such refuse included the plastic inflatable dinghies, life-jackets and other equipment. According to the mayor of Lesvos, there were now 800 tonnes of such non-recyclable materials on Lesvos alone.
The five islands, with the possible addition of Kalymnos, have been selected as possible sites for refugee hotspots, while two centres capable of housing 10,000 individuals each will be created in Athens and Thessaloniki to received the ‘identified’ refugees. Government sources stressed that such centres were necessary in order to allow relocation mechanisms to operate, allowing the refugees to be resettled in other European countries.
The prime minister informed those at the meeting that 1,000 positions for social workers will open up on the islands receiving refugee flows and that he will request 380 million euros from European institutions to finance a special programme to support the local economy on each island, managed jointly with local government.
Archbishop Ieronymos raised the issue of orphaned or unaccompanied children arriving on the islands, the sources said, who are now being cared for by Church institutions. He said the Church had also distributed more than 70,000 hot meals, thousands of sleeping bags, blankets, food parcels and personal care products, as well as assisting in vaccinations and the work to repair and refurbish hostels.
Another major problem are the rising numbers of dead bodies, which exceed the ability of local communities to cope. On the island of Lesvos alone, the number of drowned refugees that remain unburied due to lack of space in the local cemetery has reached 75.
Greek authorities have ruled out, again, the possibility of joint sea patrols with Turkey in the Aegean but have indicated, for the first time, that they would be willing to consider opening the fence on the Evros border with the neighboring country if a broad agreement with European Union members could be reached.
Speaking to the semi-state Athens-Macedonian News Agency on Saturday, Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Toskas indicated that Athens will not engage in any further discussion on the idea of common sea patrols.
The European Commission never called for joint Greek and Turkish coast guard patrols in the Aegean, but simply for more effective guarding of Greek and Turkish borders, sources of the European Commission in Athens said on Friday.
The source said the comments made by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had been misinterpreted. “What president Juncker meant is that it’s unacceptable to have people drowning between Turkey and Lesvos or Kos, in other words, in a 10 kilometer distance, and that better communication and coordination between Greek and Turkish authorities could save many lives,” the source added.
The European Union border protection agency Frontex says it will deploy forces along Greece’s border with neighboring Albania.
Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri on Friday told Albanian television station Top Channel the agency wants to prevent migrants from attempting to reach Western Europe by traveling through Albania.
That route isn’t used at the moment by the large number of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Tirana says, however, it has made preparations to shelter refugees should they begin arriving during the winter.