KOS, Greece, (Reuters) - A passenger ship carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees was heading to the Greek mainland from islands in the Aegean Sea on Wednesday amid confusion over its final destination and the fate of passengers.
On top of its economic crisis, cash-strapped Greece has been battling a huge influx in migrants arriving by boat from neighboring Turkey in recent weeks. About 21,000 people landed on Greek shores last week alone, prompting Athens to appeal to the European Union for help.
"Its certain that if there is no intervention from the United Nations, the European Union .. Greece will have a slow-burning bomb at its foundations, and everyone should understand that," said civil protection minister Yiannis Panousis.
A car ferry chartered by the Greek government picked up more than 2,000 Syrian refugees from the islands of Kos, Leros, Kalymnos and Lesbos, where they had landed in tiny overcrowded vessels in recent weeks.
Officials initially said the ship, which has acted as a floating accommodation and registration center since Sunday, was heading for the northern port of Thessaloniki. But the coastguard later said it was expected to arrive in Athens on Thursday morning.
"This isn't just a problem for Greece or the countries of the south. It's a problem for Europe and the world, which will soon be forced to deal with this problem," said State Minister Alekos Flabouraris.
Greek authorities recently opened a new reception center in Athens, moving migrants away from squalid conditions in a park. But the center has a capacity of only 720 people, and it was unclear how and where the new influx of more than 2,000 refugees would be accommodated.
The decision to send the ship to Athens capped a day of confusion over where the refugees would go.
Authorities in Thessaloniki had said earlier they were taken by surprise to hear the ship would be heading their way.
Compounding the confusion, the head of a privately-owned bus operator told the Athens News Agency that about 10 buses would be waiting at Thessaloniki port to transfer refugees to the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni.
Sneaking across into Macedonia by foot has become a popular route in recent years for refugees to make their way to richer northern European countries.
The Greek government has come under fire from aid agencies and the opposition for failing to deal with the migrant crisis. Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the centrist opposition party To Potami, wrote to the parliament speaker calling for an immediate debate in the assembly.
"Weaknesses in planning and coordination over immigration policy have created a situation of continuous emergency," Theodorakis said.
Many of the arrivals have escaped the Syrian civil war, making their way through Turkey before crossing the narrow stretch of water to Kos and other Greek islands in inflatable dinghies and small boats to seek refuge in the EU.
With conditions on Kos becoming increasingly chaotic, the Greek government chartered the car ferry Eleftherios Venizelos last week to accommodate up to 2,500 Syrians and ease the pressure on the island. Thousands of other migrants from Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East are sleeping in abandoned buildings or in the open.
The Greek Red Cross said it was delivering humanitarian aid worth 300,000 Swiss francs ($310,000) to people on Kos. So far some 300-400 migrants had been given survival kits and packages for infants and women.
The number of arrivals in Greece last week was equal to almost half the number for all of 2014 and brings the total for this year to 160,000. This has strained an ill-prepared reception system that relies heavily on volunteers. The Syrians received priority in boarding the ferry as they are regarded as refugees from their country's four-year-old civil war.
Arrivals from other countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, regarded as economic migrants, are camping out in filthy conditions, leading to sporadic clashes and brawls.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Geneva said Greece needed to show "much more leadership" in dealing with the crisis.
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Michele Kambas in Athens; Writing by Deepa Babington and David Stamp; Editing by Andrew Roche