Despite financial woes, Greeks welcome refugees. Will others?

A report from the UN Refugee Agency calls for a broader EU response to an unprecedented refugee crisis in Greece and Italy. 

Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters
Syrian refugees walk through a field near the village of Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border, July 14, 2015. The United Nations Refugee Agency said that Greece urgently needed help to cope with 1,000 migrants arriving each day and called on the European Union (EU) to step in before the humanitarian situation deteriorates further. More than 77,000 people have arrived by sea to Greece so far this year, more than 60 percent of them Syrians, with others fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.

Amid a nationwide financial crisis, Greeks have been welcoming and generous to the thousands of refugees arriving to their shores each week, reports the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR).

Greece and Italy have borne the brunt of a wave of migrants seeking asylum from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Somalia, according to the report released Friday. So-called "front-line states," Greece and Italy are the first stop in Europe for thousands of refugees, who pay traffickers for passage on often flimsy sea vessels to reach asylum in the EU.

Amnesty International reports that about 5,000 refugees were arriving in Greece each week in June. Migration has since surged, and on Friday the UN estimated that 1,000 refugees are arriving in Greece each day.

A UNHCR press release calls this an "unprecedented emergency," the likes of which have not been seen since World War II.

"Greece has almost no capacity," says Joel Millman, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, in a phone interview. He has heard accounts of overcrowded reception centers and no food; local aid agencies are reporting having no cash.

Even so, he says, Greeks have extended refugees a warm welcome.

Most of the refugees arriving in Greece are moving onward, UNHCR reports, to countries in western and northern Europe. Macedonia, Serbia, and other western Balkans states have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of refugees. In the first half of this year, UNHCR reports, some 45,000 people sought asylum in the region, an almost nine-fold increase in asylum applications compared with the same period in 2014.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, told Newsweek that European resistance to an increasing number of refugees is a "mismatch."

"It’s not reflected, by and large, by the attitude of the residents of EU member states on the very front lines of the phenomenon," Mr. Dahhuisen says. "Those exposed to this drama are inevitably more sympathetic to it."

"Tens of thousands of vulnerable people making the perilous sea journeys to escape war or poverty arrive on these islands only to be met by a support system on its knees. The majority of new arrivals have limited or no access to medical or humanitarian support and are often forced to stay in squalid conditions in overcrowded detention centres or open camps," says Dalhuisen in a statement by Amnesty International.

The number of people arriving is now so high that, despite all efforts, the authorities and local communities can no longer cope, reports UNHCR. The agency called for an urgent response from the EU, which has so far rejected a refugee-quota system to balance the burden across the 28 member nations.

According to Mr. Millman, until the EU begins to collaborate and put resources into Greece, "the crisis is going to endure."

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