NEWS

Islands of eastern Aegean struggle as migrant influx triples

The islands of the eastern Aegean are struggling to cope with an influx of would-be immigrants from neighboring Turkey, according to the Hellenic Coast Guard, whose latest figures show arrivals have tripled in the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period last year.

Officers intercepted a total of 10,445 undocumented migrants between January 1 and March 31 compared to 2,863 in the same period in 2014, Kathimerini has learned.

On Thursday a coast guard patrol boat intercepted an inflatable rowboat carrying 38 migrants off the coast of Kos. Another 43 migrants were stopped in a boat off Rhodes on the same day. “The incidents are daily now,” a coast guard official said. The islands of the Dodecanese have a particular problem as they lack the adequate infrastructure to accommodate the migrants, he said.

Kos has received 518 migrants so far this year compared to 154 in the same period in 2014. Lesvos is also struggling, having received 5,123 immigrants so far this year, half of the total detained by the coast guard. An official on Lesvos said the island is an increasingly popular route for smugglers based in Izmir and Istanbul. According to the same official, migrants have told them that they heard “Greece has opened its borders.”

Authorities fear the influx, attributed to strife in Syria, will continue and believe total arrivals this year could reach 60,000 compared to 40,000 last year. Meanwhile an estimated 2.5 million refugees are in Turkey waiting to cross into Greece.

The government is working on a plan to deal with the increased influx, Kathimerini understands. It involves the use of tents and existing infrastructure, such as gymnasiums and local authority buildings but also army barracks, to temporarily accommodate the migrants until they are identified. Authorities are also considering chartering ferries to transfer migrants from the islands to cities. “We will exhaust all national means, and then we’ll turn to Europe,” Alternate Immigration Policy Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou said. Greece is expected to request additional funding at an EU interior ministers’ summit due in June.