Greece may find it increasingly hard to cope with refugees entering the country as unilateral decisions by other European nations cause bottlenecks and worsening weather fails to deter new arrivals, its interim maritime minister said.
Greece has this year become the main gateway for hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing into Europe, many fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, in the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War Two.
“We cannot carry this load alone,” Christos Zois told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday from his office overlooking the busy port of Piraeus, where thousands of refugees and migrants arrive from the country's eastern islands every day.
“This is not Greece's problem alone. We're not guarding Greece's borders, we're guarding the European Union's borders. We need support - economic and moral support.”
Its economy already crippled by years of recession and bailout-driven austerity, Greece has repeatedly called for European Union funds to help it weather the refugee crisis.
Of the record 430,000 refugees and migrants that have made the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, 309,000 have arrived via Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In July and August alone, Greece saw 150,000 arrivals, Zois said.
Fences and controls
So far the vast majority have used the country only as a transit point along a route taking them north to richer states.
But decisions by Hungary to fence off that route and by Germany to reimpose border controls have increased the risk that Greece will be unable to move the migrants on, possibly tipping its economy back into recession.
Asked if he was concerned that refugees might become trapped in Greece, the minister said: “I'm not optimistic because I see that everyone is buying time which, meanwhile... is running out.”
His unease is shared by the IOM, a United Nations partner agency.
“The expectation is that the refugees and migrants ...will just build up ... and add enormous pressure on the Greek authorities,” IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told a briefing in Geneva.
The EU has already promised 33 million euros ($37.3 million) to help it tackle the crisis, but Athens says it needs much more, having sought 730 million euros in early September to build infrastructure to shelter the arrivals.
Zois said he did not expect the migrant influx to tail off as the European winter sets in.
Citing UN refugee agency figures estimating about 1.6 million Syrian refugees are still on their way to the EU, he said: “I wonder, is there anyone who believes that this phenomenon, at least over the next year, can subside?”
Speaking two days after Greece's worst migrant-related maritime accident, in which 34 refugees including 15 babies and children drowned, he suggested said more deaths were inevitable.
“The coastguard is carrying out rescue operations ... under very difficult conditions without rest... Neither the means nor the human capabilities are endless,” he said.