UNHCR official to Athens: ‘wake up’


Greek authorities need to “wake up” and start dealing with the ongoing immigration crisis as though it were a “natural disaster,” the Europe Bureau director of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Vincent Cochetel, said on Friday.

Cochetel was speaking at a news conference after a tour of the islands of Lesvos and Kos, as well as parts of Athens, where he assessed the Greek authorities’ response to an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.

He said his tour revealed that reception facilities both on the islands and the Greek capital are “bad,” and accused local authorities of failing to provide incoming refugees with essentials such as shelter, electricity and running water.

The situation is not much better in Athens, said Cochetel, who visited a makeshift camp at the downtown Pedion to Areos park that has become home to dozens of Afghans and Syrians over the past few weeks.

“There are so many empty buildings in this country, so much land not cultivated,” Cochetel said. “Don’t tell me it’s impossible to find a site for those people.”

Cochetel conceded that the crisis has put a strain of state finances and that arrivals are at unprecedented volumes with an estimated 1,000 migrants and refugees landing on Greek shores every day. However, he added, there appears to be reluctance among local officials to effectively deal with the influx.

“We need to step up the emergency response again as if it was a natural disaster,” Cochetel said.

The senior UNHCR official was also critical of Greece’s EU peers, saying that they should do more to take some of the pressure off the cash-strapped country that lies on the eastern border of Europe.

Plans to relocate as many as 16,000 refugees from Greece to other parts of Europe are “a step in the right direction,” Cochetel said, “but clearly insufficient.”

Speaking in Parliament Friday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also called for more support from the European Union.