ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece ferried hundreds of refugees to its mainland on Friday to relieve the pressure on outlying islands that have been overwhelmed by thousands of people arriving by boat to flee Syria’s civil war.
At the same time, crowds of migrants massed on the Greek border with Macedonia, preparing to travel north across a continent that is struggling to cope with the influx of desperate people escaping from conflict and poverty.
Just under 2,200 refugees arrived at the port city of Piraeus on Friday night on a car ferry chartered by the Greek government. It was the second shuttle in as many days as authorities attempted to ease overcrowded conditions on islands bordering Turkey.
“I will go to Europe, I don’t want any war. I will go where there is safety for us and our family, this is the only thing,” a young Syrian told Reuters TV as he disembarked from the ship.
Buses were waiting on the quayside to ferry refugees, many of them families with young children, to train stations.
Refugees have typically headed northwards by train or bus to the city of Thessaloniki, hoping for passage into Macedonia and from there to central Europe. Some 3,000 were massed at the border region on Friday, where Macedonian police teargassed hundreds attempting to cross earlier in the day.
On the Greek island of Kos, where refugees have been living in squalor for lack of adequate reception facilities, outgoing defense minister Panos Kammenos was pelted with eggs and heckled by a number of angry locals.
It was not clear what prompted the incident, but his Independent Greeks party blamed it on extreme right-wing groups.
Greece, mired in its worst economic crisis in generations, has been found largely unprepared for a mass influx of refugees, mainly Syrians. Arrivals have exceeded 160,000 this year, three times as high as in 2014.
The crisis has exposed massive shortages in Greece’s available facilities, but also striking discord within the European Union on how to handle the humanitarian crisis.
Those who do arrive on the Greek mainland receive little guidance from Greek authorities. As part of their ‘processing’, they get a temporary residents’ permit which can range from 30 days to six months, allowing them to apply for some form of civil protection status.
The permit does not allow travel to other countries.
“Two to three thousand are arriving on the island every day,” said Paul Donohoe of the International Rescue Committee on the Greek island of Lesbos.
This represented more than a three-fold increase on average daily numbers recorded in July, he said. One reception center was holding about 2,000 people, while an estimated 4,000 were sleeping rough on the streets.
“People are arriving with literally nothing after being forced to throw their bags into the sea by the smugglers, or worse, being robbed as they try to leave Turkey,” he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Mark Trevelyan