ATHENS/GENEVA, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Greece’s infrastructure cannot handle the thousands of people landing on its shores from places like war-torn Syria and Afghanistan and needs European Union help, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Friday.
“Now is the time to see if the EU is the EU of solidarity or an EU that has everyone trying to protect their borders,” he said after a meeting with ministers dealing with the influx.
The United Nations refugee agency called on Greece to take control of the “total chaos” on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe.
“The level of suffering we have seen on the islands is unbearable. People arrive thinking they are in the European Union. What we have seen was not anything acceptable in terms of standards of treatment,” Cochetel said after visiting the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos (pictured above) and Chios.
Greek authorities must “lead and coordinate the response”, said Cochetel, a 30-year UNHCR veteran. “I have never seen a situation like that. This is the European Union and this is totally shameful.”
Greece, along with Italy, has been on the front line of a huge wave of people seeking safety and a better future in Europe.
But the Greek economy is falling into recession again after having only just recovered from six years of recession brought on by its debt crisis. As a result, the government says it cannot handle the pressure from thousands of penniless refugees.
“The immigrant flow to Greece is beyond of what our state infrastructure can handle,” Tsipras said. “We have significant problems to face it and that’s why we have asked help from EU.”
While recognising that the migrant crisis is “not necessarily the top priority for everyone in the government”, Cochetel said Greece must still deploy an emergency response plan.
“We’ve told the Greek authorities that if it was a natural disaster, there would be mobilisation of other assets including from the ministry of defence,” he said.
“So let’s call it a civil protection emergency, let’s mobilise those assets, because they have plans for that sort of natural disaster.”
He added: “It’s easy, there are plenty of empty army barracks in Greece, there is plenty of uncultivated land that could be rented and sites could be developed.”
The European Union has sought to share the burden of the refugees across its member countries, but the response has been mixed. EU leaders have pledged to relocate 16,000 migrants over two years, which Cochetel called “far too little and too late”.
Britain has said it will not participate. It is currently struggling with its own crisis as thousands of migrants seek to enter via the Channel Tunnel.
Hungary is also preparing to build a fence along its border, where migrants from the east seek to enter.
By Lefteris Papadimas and Stephanie Nebehay (Editing by Digby Lidstone)