Migrant numbers in Greece abruptly rise – government official


The number of migrants in Greece has abruptly risen in the last 48 hours, a government official said on Thursday (March 10) as shiploads continue to arrive from Turkey.

In the last 24 hours more than 2,300 migrants and refugees crossed to Greece by sea, and coast guard officials scrambled to rescue the boatloads, mainly off the island of Lesbos and Chios.

In total the number of migrants in Greece rose from 34,000 to 41,000 in just 48 hours, according to a government official and figures. Concern has grown that smugglers will try to pass as many as possible before the recent EU agreements with Turkey come into force.

The European Union agreed with Turkey on Monday (March 7) for Ankara to take back migrants crossing from its shores to Greece, in order to stem the huge flow of mainly Syrian migrants fleeing war in their home country.

The German Maritime Search and Rescue Service vessel MINDEN, which is also participating in the rescue operations with the Greek coast guard, brought some 80 migrants to shore on Lesbos on Thursday. It was followed by the Greek coast guard which unloaded hundreds at the island’s port. The migrants were from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, local witnesses said. Among them, dozens of children and infants. One man brought his pet dog. They were taken to the temporary camps on the island, currently housing close to 5,000 people.

NATO ships have also begun to patrol the Aegean Sea in an effort to deter the migrants, but the numbers showed smugglers continued unabated.

A deal between Turkey and the European Union to readmit migrants does not apply to refugees already on Greek islands but to those who arrive once the agreement is in effect, Anadolu Agency quoted EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir as saying on Thursday.

The number of migrants Turkey will take back will be in the thousands or tens of thousands, not in the millions, Bozkir also told state-run Anadolu, according to its Twitter account.

Five Afghans, including two children and a six-month old baby, drowned in the Aegean overnight trying to reach Greece, a Turkish coast guard official told Reuters. One of the victims from Wednesday night’s capsize, in which their boat hit rough weather as it traveled towards the Greek island of Lesbos, managed to swim ashore but died during attempts to revive him.

Of the four bodies found at sea, one was that of a six-month-old baby, rescuers said. Nine other people were pulled from the water alive.

The EU border agency Frontex said 978,300 people tried to cross EU borders illegally in the fourth quarter of 2015, its highest level since 2007, new data released on Thursday showed.

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