KOS, Greece — Locked in a sunbaked football stadium without food, drinking water or sanitation, about 1,000 refugees queued for hours on Wednesday to register with Greek authorities on the island of Kos, which is now at the forefront of a humanitarian crisis sweeping the financially broken country.
After sending police reinforcements, the government promised to charter a commercial ship to house up to 2,500 immigrants on the island where authorities have been overwhelmed by a spike in arrivals.
Alekos Flambouraris, an aide to the prime minister, said the vessel would be used to provide shelter and check documents. More details of the plan were to be announced Thursday, his office said.
The order to charter the ship was given after violence broke out in front of a police station on the holiday island, where migrants were lining up to receive temporary residence documents. A football stadium is currently being used to provide shelter for about 1,000 people.
Greece has become the main gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants, mainly Syrians fleeing war, as fighting in Libya has made the alternative route from north Africa to Italy increasingly dangerous. Nearly 130,000 people have arrived since January on the eastern Aegean Sea islands from nearby Turkey — a 750 per cent increase over last year.
Kos mayor Giorgos Kyritsis welcomed the promised ship, but complained that the radical left-led government did little to help his island until Flambouraris stepped in.
“The government was asleep,” he told private Skai TV Wednesday. “How come (now) we can talk normally with one minister?”
Tourism-reliant Kos, which received 7,000 migrants last month and has seen tourist arrivals drop by about 7 per cent this year, is a stark study in contrasts.
Boatloads of refugees arrive in the rosy hues of dawn — as the last revelers are straggling out of night clubs and joggers run along the seafront. Mega yachts and cruise ships anchor just off the detention centre, refugees sleep on bicycle lanes forcing cycling tourists to swerve, and bikini-clad visitors stroll along next to a man in a traditional Iraqi dress.
Scores of Syrians landed early Wednesday, crossing the 4-kilometre (2.5-mile) strait from Turkey in rubber boats — which, in many cases, local men rush to carry away for their own use.
“I feel good to be here, but I still miss my family” in Syria, said Omar Mohammad, a 25-year-old English literature graduate from Aleppo.
He said the three-hour crossing from Turkey was his third attempt to reach Greece in four days. On two previous occasions, Turkish officials had prevented him from leaving.
Unlike during past immigration crises in Greece since the early 1990s, this time the refugees don’t want to stay. Their destinations are wealthy countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, and all they seek from Greece is temporary travel papers to continue their trek through the Balkans and central Europe.
So they end up in the old stadium or outside on the beachfront, in tents, or under trees.
Inside the stadium, three police clerks were struggling to register hundreds of refugees, and for the second day used fire-extinguishers to control the jostling crowd. An estimated 300 travel documents were handed out by early afternoon since the morning.
The office on Kos for Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity, strongly deplored the conditions in the stadium, where most refugees were sent after being evicted from makeshift camps all around the town.
“What we see now is a completely disproportionate focus on security management of these people without the relative humanitarian assistance that they need,” said Vangelis Orfanoudakis from the charity, which is also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“There are just two toilets. No access to water. They now have put a water hose for all the people, the situation is really dramatic,” he said.
Municipal officials weren’t available to comment Wednesday, but have long been lobbying for the refugees to be taken to mainland Greece. Mayor Kyritsis has pledged to get them off parks and public areas.
MSF’s Julia Kourafa said some refugees had fainted from exhaustion or hunger in the stadium. Hundreds were seen climbing the 12-foot perimeter wall to go and buy food, and one man was taken away in an ambulance after he fell and seriously injured his leg.
Some refugees set up tents in the little shade available, while MSF teams were planning to erect awnings.
“The situation here is very bad and police here they beat a boy, they beat a man, they beat children. It’s too bad,” Syrian refugee Laith Saleh, who is in the stadium, told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. “We can’t go out.”
A group of young Syrian men from Latakia, who had just arrived in the morning after an Italian coast guard vessel from a European border watch mission picked up their boat in the sea, rested on a pavement behind the stadium and planned their next moves. Across the road, an elderly Greek couple handed out food to refugees perched on the wall.
The Syrians said authorities gave them no information or directions whatsoever, and said they were planning to enter the stadium Thursday.
“The people are not informed about the procedure,” Orfanoudakis said. “They need to have access to health care, food, water, basic sanitation … together with protection for their legal rights, something which is not happening at all here in Kos.”
In the Psalidi area east of Kos town, newly-arrived Syrians’ first question was where they had landed — which provoked strong laughter as Kos has an obscene meaning in Arabic.
“Aleppo is the worst city in the world,” said Dirar, another English graduate who made the crossing with Mohammad’s group. He didn’t give his last name to protect family in Syria. “There’s no electricity, no water, no Internet. My home was destroyed by a rocket blast,” he said, showing a picture on his mobile phone of himself in the wreckage.
“I was so happy to be alive that I took a selfie,” he said. “From Greece, I will travel through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Germany.”