Migrant arrivals in Greece increase by 750%, and their conditions 'totally shameful', says UN

"I've been working 30 years with UNHCR (and) I have never seen a situation like that..." - Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR, Europe.

THE number of migrants and refugees arriving on Greece’s shores has exploded this year, but the Mediterranean country provides virtually no reception facilities and leaves them wallowing in “totally shameful” conditions, a UN official said Friday.

Since the beginning of the year, some 124,000 people, almost all of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria and Afghanistan, have washed up on Greek shores—a 750% increase from the same period last year, the UN refugee agency said.

But when they arrive on the Greek islands there is usually nothing for them and most are forced to sleep outdoors in woefully inadequate conditions and relying mainly on volunteers for food and water handouts, said Vincent Cochetel, head of the UN refugee agency’s Europe division.

After a few days they are transferred to Athens, where again “there is nothing waiting for them,” he said, pointing out that in total Greece only offers reception places for 1,100 people, “which is totally inadequate for the needs.”

“I’ve been working 30 years with UNHCR (and) I have never seen a situation like that…  This is the European Union, and this is totally shameful,” Cochetel said, demanding urgent action from Athens.

While acknowledging that debt-ridden Greece is facing its own difficulties, he insisted that the country’s authorities needed to at least help coordinate the response, and designate sites where aid organisations can distribute assistance.

“We are concerned with the situation where no one is really assuming leadership in the response, which makes it very difficult for humanitarian operators to participate in the efforts,” he said.

Cochetel condemned the chaos of trying to hand out food to thousands of people on the island of Kos with no sanitation facilities or garbage collection in place.

The dire conditions could explain why only a tiny fraction of those who arrive in Greece apply for asylum there, with only 6,200 having done so by the end of June.

Instead, they continue to move onward illegally, up through eastern Europe towards the north, sparking a multitude of migration crises across the continent.

“We believe that Europe needs to react and will react, because this is affecting so many European countries,” Cochetel said.

“It would be in the interest of many European Union countries to help us to stabilise the situation and to provide better conditions of stay and care for those people to be processed in Greece,” he said.

Tsipras speaks

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras later Friday said the huge influx of migrants and refugees “surpassed” his debt-hit country’s abilities as he announced a raft of measures and asked for EU help to handle the crisis.

“This problem surpasses us. Greece is a country in economic crisis, and it faces a major humanitarian crisis within a crisis,” Tsipras said. “These dimensions exceed our country’s capabilities, they are European dimensions.” 

The premier announced a raft of measures to improve government coordination after the UNHCR’s criticism.

Tsipras said his government would speed up identification procedures to get migrants and refugees to the mainland as soon as possible. 

A new housing centre will soon be completed near central Athens to relocate hundreds of migrants currently sleeping in one of the capital’s parks, Tsipras added. “We will do what we can to meet our humanistic obligation, by giving what little we have.”

But he also criticised EU member states that have failed to fully implement migrant quotas suggested by Brussels or have rejected them altogether. 

“The European Union has no other meaning if it is a union of states looking after their own interests,” Tsipras said.

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