Athens.- More than 2,500 refugees arrived in Athens on Saturday from Lesvos as authorities on the eastern Aegean island stepped up efforts to deal with an influx of migrants from neighboring Turkey.
A total of 2,528 refugees landed in Piraeus aboard two ferries on Saturday before making their way to Athens. Despite an initiative by municipal authorities to host the migrants in temporary centers most new arrivals prefer to camp out at the capital’s squares before continuing their journey.
Bad weather at the end of last week did not deter smuggling boats from bringing scores of migrants to Lesvos and other islands from neighboring Turkey, fuelling fears of a new wave of drowning.
Armed masked men have been disabling boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea and pushing them back to Turkish waters, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch spoke to nine witnesses who described eight incidents in which masked assailants – often armed – intercepted and disabled the boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants from Turkey toward the Greek islands, most recently on October 7 and 9, 2015. The witnesses said that the assailants deliberately disabled their boats by damaging or removing the engines or their fuel, or puncturing the hulls of inflatable boats. In some cases, the boats were towed to Turkish waters.
“Disabling boats in the Aegean makes an already dangerous journey even more likely to result in death,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “These criminal actions require an urgent response from the Greek authorities.”
Human Rights Watch also found new cases in which Greek border guards summarily returned migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey across the land border at Evros.
Footage broadcasted by CBS on September 8 shows what appears to be an attack on a boat by unidentified masked men. In the video, a CBS reporter says they witnessed attacks on six boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers that day.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a revised Emergency Appeal, quadrupling the funds needed to support the Hellenic Red Cross as it assists thousands of people moving through Greece.
The revised appeal for 12.7 million Swiss francs (11.6 million euro) will enable the Red Cross to assist 200,000 vulnerable migrants over the next seven months. More than 502,000 migrants have arrived in Greece in 2015, more than ten times the number of total arrivals in 2014 (41,038). Recently, the average number of daily arrivals has risen to up to 8,000.
“The Hellenic Red Cross has been responding to the humanitarian needs of migrants since the onset of the emergency on the islands of arrival: Kos, Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Crete and Rhodes, at Idomeni by the northern border, as well as at transit points in Athens,” said Angelica Fanaki, who is responsible for international relations at the Hellenic Red Cross. “We are constantly adapting our response to evolving needs. This revised appeal will allow us to continue our flexible and long-term assistance to vulnerable migrants.”
In addition to the increasing influx of arrivals and longer stays in Greece, the approaching winter season will dramatically increase people’s vulnerabilities. The appeal anticipates these challenges and will support the Hellenic Red Cross in reaching vulnerable migrants with food, water, hygiene kits, and other essential goods. The Red Cross will distribute high insulation thermal blankets, mats, clothes and backpacks, as well as provide hot meals and beverages at entry and transit points. The appeal will also support first aid, emergency medical care, search and rescue activities on the shores, and the provision of psychosocial support and help in reconnecting family members.
The French president during his visit in Greece also addressed the refugee crisis, stressing the importance of supporting Greece financially but also with equipment and additional border guards through the European Union agency Frontex.
“Greece is our frontier,” Hollande said, pledging 60 French experts to help EU border agency Frontex staff emergency registration centres across the region.
“We must cooperate to protect our borders,” he added, saying those who did not meet refugee criteria “should be turned back”.
Hollande said he supported a Greek request to the European Union for a credit extension of 330 million euros ($363 million) in 2016 to cope with the influx of migrants following the arrival of more than half a million people since January.
“Centres must be created in Turkey so that people will not get as far as Greece, where we will not be able to receive them,” he said.
HIGH LEVEL SUMMIT
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker aims to get a group of EU leaders attending a summit on Sunday to agree short-term steps to tackle the migrant crisis in the western Balkans.
As winter approaches, concern is growing for hundreds of thousands of migrants who are camped outside in western Balkan countries after arriving in Europe, many from Middle East war zones such as Syria.
Juncker has summoned European Union leaders from the region and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which is taking in more refugees than any other EU state, for talks on Sunday.
“They will discuss urgently needed, common operative answers to the current humanitarian demands and decide on short-term measures,” Juncker told German media group Funke, adding closer cooperation was needed to master the crisis.
The situation for migrants deteriorated after Hungary sealed its borders with Serbia and Croatia, leaving many stranded in other overwhelmed states.
German media have reported that Juncker will present a 16-point plan, including an undertaking not to send migrants from one country to another without prior agreement.
Slovenia, where 58,000 migrants have arrived in the last week, said on Saturday that it expected an “immediate operational reponse of the EU” following the meeting, which its prime minister Miro Cerar will attend.
Juncker praised Merkel for ignoring public opinion in her efforts to tackle the refugee crisis, which she describes as a bigger challenge for Europe than Greece’s debt woes.
“This isn’t about short-term popularity but about substance,” Juncker told the Funke group.
Germany is struggling to cope with an expected 800,000 or more migrants this year, almost 1 percent of its population.
Some 150 AfD supporters gathered outside the headquarters of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Berlin on Saturday, waving placards saying “Red Card for Merkel” and “Thank you, Hungary”.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was quoted in Der Spiegel as saying the mood among conservatives was “dramatic” and that her CDU faced a tough test if the latest measures to ease the situation in Germany did not help.
A new law to speed up asylum procedures and deportation for migrants from southeastern Europe took effect on Saturday.