Venice hit by another ferocious high tide, flooding city

By Riccardo Bastianello and Emily G Roe

VENICE (Reuters) – An exceptionally high tide hit Venice again on Friday just three days after the city suffered its worst flooding in more than 50 years, leaving squares, shops and hotels once more inundated.

Mayor Luigi Brugnaro closed access to the submerged St. Mark’s Square and issued an international appeal for funds, warning that the damage caused by this week’s floods could rise to one billion euros.

Local authorities said the high tide peaked at 154 cm (5.05 ft), slightly below expectations and significantly lower than the 187 cm level reached on Tuesday, which was the second highest tide ever recorded in Venice.

But it was still enough to leave 70% of the city under water, fraying the nerves of locals who faced yet another large-scale clean-up operation.

“We have been in this emergency for days and we just can’t put up with it any more,” said Venetian resident Nava Naccara.

The government declared a state of emergency for Venice on Thursday, allocating 20 million euros ($22 million) to address the immediate damage, but Brugnaro predicted the costs would be vastly higher and launched a fund to help pay for repairs.

“Venice was destroyed the other day. We are talking about damage totaling a billion euros,” he said in a video.

Sirens wailed across the city from the early morning hours, warning of the impending high tide. Sea water swiftly filled the crypt beneath St. Mark’s Basilica, built more than a thousand years ago.

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is spread over 118 islands and once presided over a powerful maritime empire. The city is filled with Gothic architectural masterpieces which house paintings by some of Italy’s most important artists.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said initial checks suggested the damage to St. Mark’s was not irreparable, but warned that more than 50 churches across the city had been flooded this week.

“Visiting here you see that the disaster is much bigger than you think when you watch the images on television,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

After Friday’s high waters, forecasters predicted tides of up to 110-120 cm during the weekend. In normal conditions, tides of 80-90cm are generally seen as high but manageable.

The mayor has blamed climate change for the ever-increasing flood waters that the city has had to deal with in recent years, with the mean sea level estimated to be more than 20 cm higher than it was a century ago, and set to raise much further.

Groups of volunteers and students arrived in the city center to help businesses mop up, while schools remained closed, as they have been most of the week.

“When you hear the name Venice, it is always like sunsets and everything pretty but it is a bit crazy now that we are here,” said British tourist Chelsea Smart. “I knew it was going to flood … but I didn’t expect it to be this high.”

At the city’s internationally renowned bookshop Acqua Alta — the Italian for high water — staff were trying to dry out thousands of water-damaged books and prints, usually kept in boats, bath tubs and plastic bins.

“The only thing we were able to do was to raise the books as much as possible but unfortunately even that wasn’t enough … about half of the bookshop was completely flooded,” said Oriana, who works in the store.

Some shops stayed open throughout the high tide, welcoming in hardy customers wading through the waters in boots up to their thighs. Other stores remained shuttered, with some owners saying they had no idea when they could resume trade.

“Our electrics are burnt out,” said Nicola Gastaldon, who runs a city-center bar. “This is an old bar and all the woodwork inside is from the 1920s and earlier which we will have to scrub down with fresh water and then clean up again.”

A flood barrier designed to protect Venice from high tides is not expected to start working until the end of 2021, with the project plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterize major Italian infrastructure programs — corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.

(Additional reporting by Giulia Segreti in Rome; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Venice still waiting for Moses to hold back the seas

A car is pictured submerged in flood water in Venice, Italy November 13, 2019. Vigili del Fuoco/Handout via REUTERS

By Riccardo Bastianello and Crispian Balmer

VENICE/ROME (Reuters) – If everything had gone according to plan, Tuesday’s high tide should never have reached the lagoon city of Venice, let alone flood its basilica, submerge its squares and inundate its historic palaces.

But things in Italy rarely go according to plan, especially if you are talking about the execution of a mega infrastructure project involving massive public financing and complex, cutting-edge engineering.

Following the worst flooding in its history in 1966, the Italian government asked engineers to draw up plans to build a barrier at sea to defend one of the world’s most picturesque yet fragile cities from the constant threat of high tides.

Fast forward to 2003 and construction finally started with completion set for 2011. But the project, known as Mose, has been plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterize many major Italian construction programs — corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.

Engineers are now predicting the sea defense system will go on line at the end of 2021 at a cost of 5.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) against an original estimate of 1.6 billion euros.

“These delays are an embarrassment for all of Italy and we urgently need a solution,” Alessandro Morelli, the head of parliament’s transport commission said on Wednesday, promising to dispatch lawmakers to Venice to review the program.

The good news is they will discover that the building work is almost complete. The bad news is no-one is sure how it will cope with the growing phenomenon of flooding and whether it might prove too little, too late.

MOBILE BARRIERS

Mose is an acronym for “Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico”, or “Experimental Electromechanical Module”, and refers to the biblical figure Moses who parted the Red Sea to enable the Israelites to flee to safety from Egypt.

The modern-day Moses consists of 78 bright yellow mobile barriers buried in the water that, when activated, will rise above the surface and prevent surging tides from the Adriatic Sea flooding the delicate Venetian lagoon.

“If Mose had been working, then we would have avoided this exceptional high tide,” Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said after Tuesday’s floods, which followed a tide of 187 cm (6ft 2ins) — the worst since the 194 cm recorded in 1966.

All 78 gates are now in place and engineers are working on the mechanics of raising them simultaneously once tides of more than 110 cm are forecast, with first testing expected next year.

But there is no guarantee it will go smoothly.

Part of the submerged infrastructure has already started to rust and a source close to the consortium building the mobile dam told Reuters on Wednesday it would cost some 100 million euros a year to maintain — much higher than original estimates.

The source, who declined to be named, was confident that once operational, it could defend Venice from tides of up to 3 meters high, well beyond the current record.

But some experts worry that the system was not designed to deal with the sort of rising sea waters that recent climate-change models have predicted.

A report http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Venice/pdf/rapporto1_very%20high%20res.pdf by the U.N.’s science and culture agency UNESCO says Mose was planned on a base scenario of sea levels in the northern Adriatic rising some 22 cm by 2100, but many scientists fear that assumption is far too optimistic.

“The planned mobile barriers might be able to avoid flooding for the next few decades, but the sea will eventually rise to a level where even continuous closures will not be able to protect the city from flooding,” the 2011 UNESCO report concluded.

($1 = 0.9074 euros)

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

G7 or G5? Trump and Johnson add unpredictability to French summit

A view shows the beach and Le Bellevue summit venue ahead of the G7 Summit in the French coastal resort of Biarritz, France, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

By John Irish and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Brexit Britain’s overtures to U.S. President Donald Trump risk further complicating the search for common ground this weekend at a Group of Seven summit already clouded by transatlantic rifts over trade, Iran and climate change.

The summit host, President Emmanuel Macron of France, has set the bar low for Biarritz to avoid a repeat of the fiasco last year when Trump threw Canada’s G7 summit into disarray by leaving early, scotching the final communique.

Macron, an ardent europhile and staunch defender of multilateralism, will count on incremental advances in areas where a united front can be presented, with the meeting, which runs from Saturday to Monday, officially focusing on the broad theme of reducing inequality.

On hot-button issues, they will, when necessary, have to agree to disagree.

“We have to adapt formats. There will be no final communique, but coalitions, commitments and follow-ups,” Macron said. “We must assume that, on one subject or another, a member of the club might not sign up.”

The G7 groups the United States, France, Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy and Canada, and the European Union also attends. Macron has also invited the leaders of Australia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Egypt, India, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa, in order to widen the debate on inequality.

TOUGH TOPICS

But the tougher discussions lie elsewhere. The Sino-U.S. trade war has spurred fears of a global economic slump; European powers are struggling to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran; and Trump has shown little enthusiasm for France’s push for a universal tax on digital multinationals such as Google and Amazon, and turned his back on efforts in Europe and around the globe to limit carbon emissions to slow climate change.

The crisis in Kashmir and street protests in Hong Kong may also be touched on during the talks in France’s Atlantic coast surfing capital, where some 13,000 police will be drafted in to prevent any violent anti-globalization demonstrations.

“There’s no doubt that we will discuss how trade frictions could affect the global economy,” a Japanese government official said. “But it is difficult to deliver messages to the outside since a communique won’t be issued.”

Strained relations between the United States and its top allies mean that where once they were in agreement, they now seek the lowest common denominator.

“It won’t be productive to push something that someone — whether it’s America or some other country — would not agree to do,” the Japanese official added.

Moreover, Italy’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday, Canada is heading for an election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s influence on the world stage is waning ahead of her departure, and Britain is probably on the verge of either leaving the EU or a snap election.

POLITICAL NITROGLYCERINE

One unknown is where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will position himself, making his debut on the global stage at a summit that will lay bare new realities as Britain’s influence in Europe collapses and its dependency on the United States grows.

With less than three months to go before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU – with or without a divorce deal, according to Johnson – his government has sought to cozy up to Trump’s White House with a view to future trade deals.

Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the combination of two personalities “not well-known for their self-control” was “political nitroglycerine”.

He said it might be entertaining, “but if it actually gets in the way of more substantive proceedings, that would be another story”.

While Johnson will want to avoid crossing a volatile Trump and putting trade ties at risk, analysts say, he will also be wary of alienating himself from other leaders who have a more multilateral approach to world politics.

One French diplomat who declined to be named said Paris was curious to see how the Trump-Johnson dynamic played out in Biarritz:

“Even with Brexit in the background, we still have the sense that the British reflex when it comes to international crises is to turn to us and the Germans first.”

(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert in Paris and Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey)

Americans accused of Rome murder reacted with tears, disbelief: prosecutor

Regent Prosecutor Michele Prestipino attends a news conference after the killing of Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome, Italy July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – An American teenager accused of stabbing an Italian policeman to death last week began to weep, and his alleged accomplice voiced disbelief, when told after their arrest that the officer had died of his wounds, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, is accused of killing the policeman in central Rome with an 18-cm (7-inch) blade in an incident that shocked Italians and raised questions over both the motive for the attack and police interrogation methods.

Elder and fellow student Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of murdering Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, after the policeman intervened in a dispute that began over a drug deal involving the pair, police say.

The court-appointed lawyers for the American pair could not be reached for comment. The Elder family said in a statement on Tuesday it had not spoken to him since his arrest on Saturday.

“The situation is fluid. Finn’s parents are coping,” the statement said.

Police say Cerciello Rega, unarmed and in plain clothes, was attacked by Elder in the early morning of Friday in an affluent Rome neighborhood as he was trying to arrest him and Natale-Hjorth on suspicion of stealing a backpack.

The policeman and another officer, who was allegedly injured in the incident by Natale-Hjorth, had been called to the scene after the pair allegedly stole the backpack from a drug-dealer who they believed had cheated them, said Francesco Gargaro, head of the capital’s Carabinieri police force.

Prosecutor Nunzia D’Elia told a news conference on Tuesday that Natale-Hjorth, had reacted with disbelief when told of the policeman’s death, saying “Really dead? Dead dead?”

In an order for the pair to be held in jail pending investigation, a judge said the Americans had told investigators they had not been aware that Cerciello Rega was a policeman.

However, police chief Gargaro said on Tuesday that Cerciello Rega and his colleague had clearly identified themselves as police to the pair before the attack.

Police have also begun an investigation into the pair’s interrogation after a photo emerged of Natale-Hjorth in police custody, sitting blindfolded, hands cuffed behind his back.

Natale-Hjorth and Elder, both from San Francisco, were likely to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were arrested on Saturday but were judged fit to be questioned, prosecutor D’Elia said.

She and Gargaro declined to comment on the inquiry into the interrogation.

Rome’s public attorney office said the investigation into the stabbing was still ongoing.

An Italian lawyer for Elder, Francesco Codini, told the New York Times that the two men had asserted their right to remain silent during a court hearing in Rome on Saturday afternoon.

(Additional reporting by Domenico Lusi, Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro, Editing by Mark Bendeich)

Turkey breaks up smuggling ring that brought thousands of migrants to Europe

FILE PHOTO: Migrants in a dinghy paddle their way on the Mediterranean Sea to attempt crossing to the Greek island of Kos, as a Turkish Coast Guard ship patrols off the shores off Bodrum, Turkey, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police said on Wednesday they had detained the leaders of what they called Europe’s biggest people-smuggling ring, which helped thousands of irregular immigrants reach Europe from the Middle East.

Twenty people, including ringleader Akbar Omar Tawfeeq, were detained in operations in four Turkish provinces after a year-long investigation into the organization, Istanbul police said.

The network mainly helped Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian nationals cross into European countries from Turkey by land and sea, police said, adding that the group had also worked with other smuggling groups in Ukraine, Italy and Greece.

As part of the operations, police detained 569 irregular immigrants and seized six vehicles and six boats, they said in a statement. The smuggling group, whose leaders are mainly from northern Iraq, earned an average 2 million euros annually.

Video footage released by police showed special operations police breaking down the door of the suspects’ residence and seizing phones, drugs and digital material.

More than a million migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, arrived in the European Union in 2015. Turkey was one of the main launch points for the dangerous sea leg of their journey, on which thousands died.

Numbers declined sharply in the following year when Turkey, in exchange for 3 billion euros in European Union aid and a promise to ease visa restrictions for Turks, began to exert more control on migrants trying to cross to Europe via its territory.

Overall Mediterranean arrivals to the European Union, including migrants making the longer and more perilous crossing from north Africa to Italy, stood at 172,301 in 2017, down from 362,753 in 2016 and 1,015,078 in 2015, according to U.N. data.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Frances Kerry)

Driver hijacks, sets ablaze school bus in Italy, children flee unharmed

The wreckage of a bus that was set ablaze by its driver in protest against the treatment of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, is seen on a road in Milan, Italy, March 20, 2019. Vigili del Fuoco/Handout via REUTERS

MILAN (Reuters) – A bus full of schoolchildren was hijacked and set on fire by its own driver on Wednesday in an apparent protest against migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, Italian authorities said.

All 51 children managed to escape unhurt before the bus was engulfed in flames on the outskirts of Milan, Italy’s business capital. Police named the driver as Ousseynou Sy, a 47-year-old Italian citizen of Senegalese origin.

“He shouted, ‘Stop the deaths at sea, I’ll carry out a massacre’,” police spokesman Marco Palmieri quoted Sy as telling police after his arrest.

A video posted on Italian news sites showed the driver ramming the bus into cars on a provincial highway before the fire took hold. Children can be seen running away from the vehicle screaming and shouting “escape”.

One of the children told reporters that the driver had threatened to pour petrol over them and set them alight. One of group managed to call the police, who rushed to the scene and broke the bus windows to get everyone to safety.

Palmieri said some children were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure because they had bruises or were in a state of shock, but none suffered serious injuries.

A teacher who was with the middle school children was quoted by Ansa news agency as saying that the driver had said he wanted to get to the runway at Milan’s Linate airport.

An unnamed girl was also quoted as saying that Sy blamed deputy prime ministers Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio for the deaths of African migrants at sea.

The United Nations estimates that some 2,297 migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2018 as they tried to reach Europe.

A Libyan security official said on Tuesday that at least 10 migrants died when their boat sank off the Libyan coast near the western town of Sabratha.

The Italian government has closed its ports to charity rescue ships that pick up migrants off the Libyan coast. Salvini says this has helped reduce deaths because far fewer people are now putting to sea.

Human rights groups say deaths might have increased with hardly any boats now searching for the would-be refugees.

(Reporting by Sara Rossi and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

North Korea diplomat in Italy missing, South Korean MP says, after asylum report

An entrance of the North Korean embassy is pictured in Rome, Italy, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – A North Korean diplomat who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy has gone missing, a South Korean member of parliament said on Thursday, after a South Korean newspaper reported he was seeking asylum in the West.

The diplomat, Jo Song Gil, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, according to Kim Min-ki, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

Earlier on Thursday, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Jo, 48, had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a “safe place” with his family under the protection of the Italian government.

A senior diplomatic source in Rome said Italy’s foreign ministry knew nothing about the reports. A second diplomatic source said the ministry had no record of Jo seeking asylum in Italy. The source added that North Korea had announced in late 2018 that it was sending a new envoy to Rome.

“It was a perfectly normal procedure,” the source said.

Kim told reporters he had some information about the case but could not discuss it.

“They left the diplomatic mission and vanished,” Kim said, referring to Jo and his family.

DEFECTIONS

If confirmed, Jo would join a slowly growing list of senior diplomats who have sought to flee the impoverished, oppressive North under the rule of Kim Jong Un.

Thae Yong Ho, the North’s then deputy ambassador to Britain, defected with his family to South Korea in August 2016, becoming the highest-ranking diplomat to do so.

Jo took up the acting envoy post in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest over North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Jo’s stint began in May 2015 and was due at the end of November, lawmaker Kim said.

A source familiar with the matter, who asked to remain unnamed in order to speak about a sensitive political issue, told Reuters that Jo was officially replaced as acting ambassador by Kim Chon in late November.

The source could not confirm the JoongAng Ilbo report or whether Jo was still based in Italy.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said earlier on Thursday it had no knowledge of the matter.

Italy said in a report it submitted to a U.N. panel monitoring the enforcement of sanctions in November 2017 that four diplomats were stationed at the North Korean embassy there, listing the acting envoy as first secretary.

The JoongAng Ilbo said Jo was with his wife and children. Citing an unidentified expert, it said he was known to be the son or son-in-law of a top-ranking North Korean official.

North Korea forced diplomats stationed overseas to leave children at home after Kim took power in late 2011.

Thae, the former deputy ambassador to Britain, said in his 2018 memoir that was the main reason behind his defection, calling it a “hostage” scheme.

However, Thae also wrote there were some exceptions for those from the top echelons and who were seen as the most loyal to Kim.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones)

Magnitude 4.8 earthquake in Sicily causes damage, injuries

St. Agata church is seen damaged by an earthquake, measuring magnitude 4.8, at the area north of Catania on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) – An earthquake with a magnitude of 4.8 hit an area north of Catania on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily early on Wednesday, damaging buildings and injuring about 30 people, officials said.

Fire fighters are seen next to a house damaged by an earthquake, measuring magnitude 4.8, at the area north of Catania on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Fire fighters are seen next to a house damaged by an earthquake, measuring magnitude 4.8, at the area north of Catania on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

It occurred two days after Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, erupted, sending a huge column of ash into the sky and causing the temporary closure of Catania airport on Sicily’s eastern coast.

The earthquake hit at 3:19 a.m. (0219 GMT), prompting many people to run out of their homes and sleep in cars. It was felt strongly because its epicenter was a relatively shallow one kilometer deep, officials said.

Television footage showed damage to older buildings in the towns of Santa Venerina and Zafferana Etnea. Several of the area’s centuries-old churches appeared to suffer the most damage. They were empty at the time of the quake.

About 30 people suffered injuries, mostly from falling masonry as they fled from their homes, officials said. About 10 were taken to hospital by ambulances, the others were taken by friends and family members. None of the injuries were serious.

(Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Gareth Jones)

Canada says safety of Pakistani woman in blasphemy case a ‘priority’

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada urged Pakistan on Tuesday to ensure the well-being of a Pakistani Christian woman whose life is in danger after having been acquitted in the South Asian country last month of blasphemy charges against Islam, a ruling that sparked mass protests.

The case of Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan before being released, has outraged Christians worldwide. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for help to Britain, Canada, Italy and the United States, and so far, Italy has said it would assist her.

“It’s a very important issue, a central priority for our government,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of Bibi’s case after meeting her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Montreal.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbors said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.

“Canada calls on Pakistan to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family,” Freeland said. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can” and is “extremely engaged in this issue,” Freeland said.

Islamists shut down roads in major cities in Pakistan during three days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have threatened to escalate the protests if she is permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands earlier this week because of fears for the safety of his family.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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)