'The level of suffering we have seen is unbearable'
Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras this weekend asked Europe to help in handling tens of thousands of refugees coming in from Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones, saying on Friday his cash-strapped country could not deal with them alone.
The influx has piled pressure on Greece's services at a time when its own citizens are struggling with harsh cuts and its government is negotiating with the EU and the IMF for fresh loans to stave off economic collapse.
Boatloads of migrants arriving every day had triggered a "humanitarian crisis within the economic crisis," Tsipras said. "The EU is being tested on the issue of Greece. It has responded negatively on the economic front - that's my view. I hope it will respond positively on the humanitarian front," he said.
The comments came as the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the "total chaos" on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, says Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe.
"The level of suffering we have seen on the islands is unbearable. People arrive thinking they are in the European Union. But what we have seen was not anything acceptable in terms of standards of treatment," Cochetel said after visiting the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos and Chios.
"I have never seen a situation like that. This is the European Union - and this is totally shameful," he added.
At a makeshift refugee centre at Kara Tepe, a hilltop about 5km north of Lesbos island's main town of Mytilene, about 50 white tents provided by the local council struggled to accommodate the waves of people coming in daily.
Rubbish littered the area and locals said 16 toilets were frequently blocked despite attempts by authorities to keep the area clean.
Up to 10 people could be seen sharing one of the tents, while others lay on pieces of cardboard, jostling for space under the shade of olive trees in sweltering heat.
Tsipras said the problem was a European issue, not just a Greek one. He said ministries would coordinate to help relieve the burden on distant islands and that a special unit would be set up to make use of dedicated EU funds to beef up border controls and integrate migrants into society.
The EU has sought to share the burden of the refugees across its member countries, but responses to humanitarian proposals have so far been mixed. EU leaders have pledged to relocate 16,000 migrants over two years, which Cochetel called "far too little and too late".
The appeal from Brussels is a fresh sign of Europe's inability to manage the influx and share out refugees who arrive. It comes as incidents multiply involving migrants in France who want to go to Britain where it is easier for undocumented people to find work.
Britain has said it will not participate in any EU scheme. It is currently struggling with thousands of migrants seeking to enter via the Channel Tunnel.
Others are more accommodating. Deputy mayor of the city of Paris, Bruno Julliard, told French radio that the city is turning a blind eye to humanitarian groups converting abandoned public buildings into migrant centres.