Situation at ‘boiling point’ at refugee center on Greek island: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria stand in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency urged Greece on Friday to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception center were “reaching boiling point”.

Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.

Those three groups still comprise more than 70 percent of those arriving in Greece, and typically have high recognition rates for their asylum claims, but the overall flow is far less than in previous years, UNHCR said.

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August, this failed to ease pressure as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month, it said.

“The situation is reaching boiling point at the Moria reception identification center on Lesbos, where more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a Geneva briefing.

Some have been there for over six months and one quarter are children, he said. A reception center on Samos island holds 2,700, nearly four times the number it was designed for, while centers on Chios and Kos are at close to double their capacity.

“We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care,” he said.

Yaxley could not confirm aid agency reports of possible suicide attempts among youth at the centers but said:

“There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment.”

The Greek government has made previous commitments to transfer people to shelters on the mainland, and has received European Union funding for it, Yaxley said.

But other EU countries must help “frontline states” including Greece, Italy and Spain who receive most of the refugees and migrants, he said, adding:

“The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it’s a question of political will.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greek civil protection minister resigns after killer wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A volunteer throws water through a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) –

Toskas had previously offered to quit after the July 23 blaze in the small seaside town of Mati east of AthenGreek Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas resigned on Friday in the wake of a wildfire last month that killed 88 people and led to widespread criticism of the government for its handling of the disaster.s, but Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras refused to accept his resignation.

The minister reiterated his desire to step aside again on Friday during a meeting with Tsipras, in a move that the main political opposition said came too late to appease the public.

“This natural disaster, and the loss of so many people in Mati, overwhelms my desire to continue. This is something I had stated publicly from the first moment,” Toskas, a retired army general, said in a statement.

Pressure has been growing on the government, which is trailing the conservative opposition in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debt crisis and reap the political benefits.

There have been recriminations over what went wrong and led to the deaths of dozens in Mati, where hundreds of people were trapped by towering walls of flames when they tried to flee.

Many jumped into the sea to survive but others died, either in their cars or when they were cornered on the edge of steep cliffs by the rapidly advancing inferno.

Last Friday Tsipras said he took political responsibility for the deadly wildfire amid accusations that his government had failed to protect lives and to apologize for the disaster.

Seeking to deflect public anger, he told his ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.

“Responsibilities have a name: Alexis Tsipras. He and his government do not have the courage to assume them 11 days after the tragedy,” the conservative New Democracy party said after the minister’s resignation.

Tsipras’s office quickly responded, accusing the conservative party of trying to score political gains from a national tragedy.

The death toll rose to 88 on Friday when a 35-year-old woman died from her injuries. Her six-month-old baby, the youngest victim, had died in her arms from smoke inhalation as they tried to escape the flames.

Greek authorities say they suspect the fire was set deliberately. Arson is thought to be a frequent cause of forest fires in Greece, a crude method to clear the way for potential development.

Toskas’s duties have been assigned to Panos Skourletis, the country’s interior minister.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas; Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)