Saturday 22 October 2016

Island close to explosion under weight of migrants

Nick Squires

Published 09/09/2015 | 02:30

Evangelos Meimarakis is the leader of New Democracy
Evangelos Meimarakis is the leader of New Democracy

Fresh clashes erupted between police and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, as the authorities said the island was "on the verge of explosion".

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A dozen or so coastguards and riot police armed with batons struggled to control some 2,500 migrants on Lesbos, screaming "Keep back" at the crowds as they surged towards a government-chartered ship bound for Athens.

Europe's borders are near breaking point as authorities struggle to cope with the influx of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, with thousands more making their way across the Balkans and the Mediterranean every day.

Lesbos, which is home to some 85,000 people, is one of several Greek islands struggling to cope with a wave of voyagers setting sail from the nearby Turkish coast for Western Europe.

Up to 20,000 refugees are living rough in and around the island's main port of Mytilini, waiting for the Greek authorities to issue them with travel permits that will allow them to board ferries to Athens and from there journey through the Balkans to northern Europe.

"I stayed here eight, nine days - oh my God, I can't even remember," said Aleddin, an engineering student who is hoping to join his brother, already in Germany. He added: "Some people have been here for 14 or 15 days. The government doesn't care."

Hours after a Greek passenger ferry sent lifeboats to rescue 61 migrants off Lesbos, junior interior minister Yiannis Mouzalas told a radio station that the port of Mytilene "currently has 15,000-17,000 refugees... The situation is on the verge of explosion."

Evangelos Meimarakis, leader of Greece's right-wing New Democracy party, which could return to power this month, said the country should strengthen its borders so as not to give out "the message that 'it's good over here, come over'".

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has called for "exceptional measures" to speed up the registration of thousands of refugees stranded on the island.

Amid growing tension and clashes between police and refugees, two extra riot squads arrived on the island, while 60 more regular ordinary police officers were also sent.

Lesbos is the entry point for around half of the 230,000 who have arrived in Greece so far this year but the Greek authorities' response to the crisis has so far been woefully inadequate.

In Mytilini, there is only one tiny office to deal with the thousands of refugees - a battered container unit inside the ferry terminal.

Long queues form outside it every day but opening hours are erratic and applications were being processed by just two police officers.

As a result, some of the refugees have been stuck on the island for two weeks or more, sleeping rough or in tents which now crowd the port area, an adjacent beach and a park shaded by pine trees.

"Exceptional measures need to be put in place to increase the Greek authorities' capacity to register refugees," said Alessandra Morelli, the UNHCR representative on the island.

"The registration process is very slow, due to lack of resources in the Greek police and coast guard. We need to reduce the congestion.

"People are arriving every day and there are not enough ferries to take them to Athens, to the point where it's a crisis. They are extremely frustrated."

Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, also called for more ferries to alleviate the acute crisis on the island, which he described as a bomb that was about to explode in his hands.

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