SKALA, Greece (AP) — Greece’s eastern islands are struggling to cope with a surge in arrivals of migrants and asylum-seekers that has undermined efforts to ease severe overcrowding at refugee camps.
The number of people reaching Lesbos, Samos and other Greeks islands in the eastern Aegean Sea is the highest since the European Union reached a 6 billion-euro agreement in 2016 to prevent migrants from leaving the coast of Turkey and heading to the EU.
The surge started before Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria, but there are concerns that it could grow much bigger. Since the offensive began last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to quell European criticism by warning that he could “open the gates” and send more than 3 million Syrian refugees to Europe.
Greece is urging the EU to extend funds to Turkey in addition to the 2016 agreement, but has also sharply criticized Ankara.
“Migration is being used by Turkey as part of its policy in the region,” Greek migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos told state-run ERT television Wednesday. “We have troubled relations between the EU and Turkey and with the West and the United States, as well as the situation in Syria.”
Dinghies carrying migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are reaching the islands despite enhanced coast guard patrolling in recent weeks supported by the Greek military.
This is exacerbating problems at crowded refugee camps. A deadly fire at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos on Sept. 29 triggered riots at the site, which is at 400% capacity.
The Greek government promised to accelerate transfers to the mainland and expand the network of camps there. But those transfers have so far been outnumbered by new arrivals on the islands.
EU border agency Frontex on Wednesday said the number of people trying to enter Europe from Turkey without authorization rose sharply last month.
It said more than 11,500 attempts to enter the EU via the eastern Mediterranean Sea were recorded in September, up 16% from the month of August.
It detected almost 50,600 border crossing attempts in the eastern Mediterranean in the first nine months of this year, up 22% from last year.
Human rights group Amnesty International has described Moria as “overcrowded and unsafe” and urged other EU countries to help Greece settle asylum-seekers.
Authorities fear that if the arrival numbers remain high through October, a winter crisis will be difficult to avoid.
Greece’s new conservative government says it also plans to detain migrants without the right to request asylum and wants to resume deportations back to Turkey under terms detailed in the 2016 EU-Turkey deal.
The EU says it is willing to offer more help to Greece to deal with the spike in migration, but is also pressing Athens to step up deportations.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU migration commissioner, said “inefficiencies” in the Greek response were also a key reason for refugee camp overcrowding.
“If my memory serves me correctly, only 1,300 migrants have been returned (to Turkey) but that number should have been 35,000,” Avramopoulos, a veteran Greek politician, said in Athens on Tuesday, referring to the implementation of the 2016 agreement.
“Despite all the effort that has been made, what do those numbers tell us: That there shouldn’t be any (refugees and migrants) on the islands.”
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
Follow Petros Giannakouris at https://twitter.com/PGiannakouris