UN condemns 'shameful' migrant conditions in Greece
The United Nations warned Friday that migrants landing in Greece were facing "shameful" conditions, with the crisis-hit country claiming it was unable to cope with the massive influx on its Aegean islands.
Some 124,000 people, almost all of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, have come ashore since the beginning of the year -- a 750-percent increase from the same period last year, the UN refugee agency said.
But when they arrive on Greek islands facing Turkey there is usually nothing for them and most are forced to sleep outdoors, relying on volunteers for food and water, said Vincent Cochetel, head of UNHCR's Europe division.
"It's total chaos on the islands," he said, describing desperate, exhausted people, including women, children and unaccompanied minors, searching for food, water, shelter and information about how to proceed.
After a few days they are transferred to Athens, where again "there is nothing waiting for them," he said. Greece only offers reception places for 1,100 people, he revealed, "which is totally inadequate for the needs."
Around 50,000 people arrived in July alone -- 20,000 more than in June, the UN refugee agency said.
The agency had earlier lambasted Austria for the "intolerable, dangerous and inhumane" conditions in its main refugee camp near Vienna, which is holding twice as many people as it was meant for.
But Cochetel, who has worked with the UNHCR for three decades across many African and Asian countries, said he had never seen anything like what is happening in Greece.
"This is the European Union, and this is totally shameful," he added.
- Greece unable to cope -
The condemnation comes after it emerged that knife-wielding traffickers sealed migrants in the hull of a boat which sank off Libya on Wednesday in the latest shipwreck tragedy that may have claimed more than 200 lives. Italian police arrested five men accused of multiple murder on the massively overcrowded vessel that was carrying 600 people.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the huge influx of migrants was too much for his debt-ravaged country and pleaded for EU help.
"This problem surpasses us. Greece is a country in economic crisis, and it faces a major humanitarian crisis within a crisis," he said.
He did, however, vow to speed up procedures to get migrants to the mainland as soon as possible, and said a new housing complex would soon be completed in Athens to relocate hundreds of refugees currently sleeping in one of the capital's parks.
But he also criticised EU member states that have failed to meet migrant quotas suggested by Brussels or have rejected them altogether.
Cochetel too criticised the EU for not yet implementing the plan to transfer 16,000 asylum seekers from Greece over two years, and said the plan in any case needed to be beefed up.
"It is far too little and too late," he said, insisting that helping fix the problems in Greece would be in the interest of a number of European countries.
Almost all of the people who arrive in Greece choose to move on, up through eastern Europe towards the north, sparking a multitude of migration crises across the continent.
- Stop another Calais -
"The top priority is not to let other Calais develop in other places," he said, referring to the northern French port where some 3,000 migrants are camped in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain.
Cochetel warned they were living in "appalling conditions" and urged France to draw up a "civil emergency" plan, suggesting the country transform some of its army barracks into reception centres.
He stressed that the emergency in Calais was small and "manageable".
He also criticised the lack of British cooperation in dealing with the situation, saying that London had flatly rejected around 10 applications it had received this year for legal transfer from France of asylum seekers with close ties to the country.
Europe was also still reeling Friday from the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean.
The fishing boat rammed with people ran into difficulty on Wednesday off Libya and tipped over when rescuers neared, after frantic migrants rushed to one side in their desperation to be saved.
The heartbreaking story took a horrifying twist when survivor testimony emerged that traffickers had sealed many migrants in the hull, condemning them to drown.
Witnesses also described how the crew had beaten and stabbed passengers during the perilous crossing.
© 2015 AFP