PIRAEUS, Greece (Reuters) - A car ferry carrying just over 2,400 Syrian refugees arrived on the Greek mainland on Thursday as a wave of migrants fleeing conflict and poverty continued unabated, straining a country already in economic crisis.
Many of the Syrians made ‘V for victory’ signs as they disembarked in the port city of Piraeus from the ship, chartered by the Greek government to ease conditions on islands in the eastern Aegean, where migrants are arriving on inflatable dinghies and small boats from nearby Turkey.
Greece has been found largely unprepared to deal with the migrant crisis in recent weeks, prompting criticism from aid agencies. Arrivals in July totaled 50,000, far outstripping the figure for the whole of 2014.
But many of the Syrians who arrived at Piraeus, which is part of the sprawling Athens conurbation, said they had no intention of staying in Greece as they flee civil war at home. They planned instead to head almost immediately to the northern border via the second city of Thessaloniki, hoping to move on to other European countries.
Thessaloniki is close to the borders of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and the Macedonian government, also unable to cope with the influx, declared a state of emergency on Thursday.
“Which is the bus to Thessaloniki?” asked 28-year-old Jwan from the Syrian city of Aleppo as he and hundreds of others milled on the Piraeus quayside, before heading into central Athens. Trains and buses depart from there to Thessaloniki, which lies close to the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders.
Jwan had traveled with his two sisters from Turkey to the island of Lesbos. “We don’t want to stay in Greece, we want to go to Germany,” he said.
Macedonia is already overwhelmed by migrants trying to get to northern Europe where they hope to find more help, opportunities and jobs.
Many of those have been massing at the French port of Calais in recent months to try to force their way across the Channel to Britain, disrupting both heavy goods and train traffic.
Britain and France announced new measures on Thursday to prevent undocumented migrants entering the Channel Tunnel, while stepping up joint police operations against the people smugglers who profit from their desperation.
The Greek car ferry Eleftherios Venizelos had left Kos on Wednesday and stopped at several other islands to pick up more refugees from the Syrian civil war on the voyage to the mainland.
Another ship was expected to head out to pick up fresh arrivals from the islands on Friday, the semi-official Athens News Agency reported - but not the thousands of migrants from Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, considered economic migrants, who are also sleeping in abandoned buildings or in the open on some islands.
Even for the Syrian refugees landing in Piraeus, no guidance seemed to be available on where to go next, apart from buses to take them from the port to the nearest metro station. Some of the refugees showed tickets, for which they had paid 60 euros ($67), for a journey directly to Thessaloniki.
Greek officials had initially said the ship would head there, and at one point a bus company told Athens News Agency that it would take the refugees from Thessaloniki to the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni.
But then the vessel abruptly changed course for Piraeus. It was unclear why.
Sneaking into Macedonia on foot has become a popular route in recent years for migrants to make their way to richer northern European countries. However, any plan to dump refugees close to another country’s border could have left Greece open to criticism that it was effectively shifting the problem on to its neighbors.
“First they told us the ship would go Thessaloniki, then Athens,” said Darek Khouja, 18, also from Aleppo. “I want to go to Germany. It has very good universities and I want to continue my studies, get on with my life.”
He and his friend Kamel Farezu, 20, both engineering students, traveled together to Greece from Turkey. Both had left their parents and family behind.
Germany said on Wednesday that it expected to receive a record 800,000 asylum-seekers and refugees this year, four times last year’s level, and more than twice the 300,000 it was forecasting only in January.
Arrivals in Greece last week alone were equal to almost half the number for all of 2014 and bring the total for this year to 160,000.
Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Ruth Pitchford and Kevin Liffey