Saturday, July 11, 2015

With some 1,000 refugees arriving daily, Greek islands under 'severe strain,' warns UN agency

UN, 10 July 2015 – Close to 1,000 refugees are now arriving on the Greek islands every day, creating an unprecedented emergency for Greece and other countries, the UN refugee agency warned on Friday.

“Greece's volatile economic situation, combined with the increasing numbers of new arrivals, is putting severe strain on small island communities, which lack the basic infrastructure and services to adequately respond to the growing humanitarian needs,” William Spindler , a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said during a press briefing in Geneva.

Since the beginning of the year, a “staggering” 77,100 people had arrived in Greece by sea, many on flimsy and unsafe vessels. Almost 60 per cent of the new arrivals are from Syria while others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.

A boat leaving Turkey on Tuesday loaded with up to 40 refugees capsized between the Greek islands of Agathonisi and Farmakonisi, said Mr. Spindler. Authorities say 19 people were rescued, but five bodies were retrieved and up to 16 people are still missing.

UNHCR said that the number of people arriving is now so high that, despite all efforts, the authorities and local communities can no longer cope.

A majority of the refugees arriving in Greece are moving onward, trying to reach countries in western and northern Europe through the western Balkans region.

Countries in this region such as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of refugees. In the first half of this year, some 45,000 people sought asylum in the region, almost a ninefold increase of asylum applications compared with the same period in 2014.

However, these are only some of the refugees entering the two countries, with most continuing directly on their way to Hungary and further north. It is estimated that half of all refugees who are actually passing through the region do so without being registered by the authorities, and are exposed to violence and abuse by smugglers and criminal gangs.

“An urgent response from Europe is needed before the situation deteriorates further,” Mr. Spindler stressed. “Tightening borders is not the solution, including the plans of the Hungarian government to build a fence along the Serbian border.”

Expressing concerns for the well-being of refugees, including pregnant women and children, the spokesperson stressed that, despite the precarious situation facing the livelihoods of many Greek people, their response towards refugees has for the most part been “welcoming and generous.”

In the face of such situation, more UNHCR staffers have already been deployed to five locations in the eastern Aegean, to provide advice and assistance to new arrivals and care for unaccompanied children and people with specific needs.

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