UNHCR says Greece faces 'unprecedented' migrant emergency

AP , Friday 10 Jul 2015

Greece is facing an "unprecedented" emergency as migrants fleeing war and poverty stream into the country's islands in huge numbers, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

The UNHCR said 77,100 people have arrived in Greece by sea this year, an average of 1,000 per day, overwhelming local authorities. The country's precarious economic situation is putting severe strain on small islands that are unable to cope, the agency said.

"Greece is part of the European Union and this is happening in Europe," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said in Geneva. "We would like the European Union to have a much more active role in responding to the situation in Greece."

Most of the refugees arriving in Greece move on in hopes of reaching western and northern European countries by passing through the Balkans, which has seen a nine-fold increase in asylum applications in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2014.

Greece's coast guard said it picked up 738 people in 17 incidents in the Aegean in the 24 hours to Friday morning, off the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. That doesn't include those who managed to make it ashore themselves in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast.

A search-and-rescue operation by the Greek and Turkish coast guards in the eastern Aegean was in its third day Friday after a sailboat carrying dozens of migrants sank July 7 between the Greek islands of Agathonissi and Farmakonissi. Five bodies were recovered and 19 people rescued, the Greek coast guard said, adding that an estimated 13 were still missing.

The Greek island most affected has been Lesbos, where about half of all those arriving in Greece land.

"We registered recently 1,600 people arriving in one day alone ... the local capacity is completely overwhelmed," Spindler said. "Greece urgently needs help and we expect Europe to step forward."

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