The Greek government transferred hundreds of Syrian refugees from the outlying Greek islands to mainland on Friday, as the islands are struggling with an influx of migrants and the crisis is endangering public health. An estimated 2,500 refugees were transported to mainland Greece.
At the same time hundreds of migrants stuck on the border between Greece and Macedonia, are waiting to continue their long journeys into European Union countries where they hope to seek asylum.
About 2200 refugees disembarked in the port city of Piraeus from a ship, chartered by the Greek government to ease conditions on the islands in the eastern Aegean, where migrants are arriving in inflatable dinghies and small boats from nearby 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.
Refugees have typically headed north by train or bus, trying to reach city of Thessaloniki, which lies close to the borders of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, after entering Macedonia, their next stop is Central Europe, where they hope to find more help, opportunities and jobs. Some 3,000 were massed at the border region on Friday, where Macedonian police tear gassed hundreds attempting to cross earlier in the day. The security forces beat the migrants with truncheons and riot shields. A number of people were injured.
Greece, mired in its worst economic crisis in generations, has been found largely unprepared for a mass influx of refugees, mainly Syrians. It has seen around 160,000 migrants, virtually all of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq land on its shores since January, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Refugees who do arrive on the Greek mainland receive little guidance and help 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 the average daily numbers recorded in July, he added. One reception centre was holding about 2,000 people, while an estimated 4,000 were sleeping on the streets.
“I hope no more migrants come because the available space at the coast guard and police buildings is already taken by others,” Symi Mayor Lefteris Papakalodoukas said.
A record 107,500 migrants arrived at the European Union's borders last month, according to new figures released by border agency Frontex, a dramatic increase that is creating a humanitarian crisis for the 28-nation bloc.