Greek Island Ferries Fully Booked as Refugees Stream to Mainland

Migrants Greek Islands
A young boy looks through a fence as migrants and refugees with temporary documents wait for a ferry to take them to Athens at the port of the Greek island of Kos, August 14, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Ferries operating between Greece's islands and the mainland are fully booked, due in part to the large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach the mainland, according to an aid agency working in the area.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says that commercial ferries leaving for the mainland are booked till the middle of next week, leaving islands such as Lesbos in the north east Aegean Sea "overwhelmed with refugees."

"The spike in the number of arrivals over the past few days and the inability for refugees to leave the island risks Lesbos reaching breaking point," Kirk Day, the IRC's Emergency Field Director on Lesbos, said in a press release. "The situation is already volatile and we have started seeing increased tensions with the local authorities and between different refugee groups."

Around 2,000 people are arriving on Lesbos each day, the organization says, more than a three-fold increase on last month's average daily numbers.

Unless further ships and ferries are made available, the organization warns, the total number of refugees on Lesbos, which has a population of nearly 90,000 people, could rise to more than 20,000. Currently the IRC estimates there are around 6,500 asylum seekers on the island.

Paul Donohue of the IRC, explains that ferries are the normal route asylum seekers and migrants take when trying to leave the islands. It usually takes a day or two to register at a police station, get papers to travel, and board a ferry to mainland Greece.

Greece appeals to EU over migrant crisis
A migrant washes as the passenger ship "Eleftherios Venizelos" leaves the port on the Greek island of Kos, August 19, 2015. A passenger ship carrying Syrian refugees set sail from the Greek island of Kos on Wednesday, heading for the mainland as authorities struggle to cope with a wave of arrivals. Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

But for the past week, the IRC has heard from travel agents and authorities that the ferries are already reserved in advance, with limited amounts of space. "So for the people arriving to the islands now, they won't be able leave in a day or two, and this is leading to a swelling of numbers."

Donohue says 3,000 people arrived on Lesbos on Tuesday. "Everyone is taking their eyes off Lesbos because of the more dramatic scenes on Kos," he says, adding that "conditions on Lesbos will only get worse."

Costas Koustos of Petra Tours, a travel agency operating in Lesbos, confirmed that the ferries are struggling with demand: "The ferries are almost full with locals travelling back to Athens from their holidays and also refugees, which is a huge problem at the moment, due to the really big numbers," he told Newsweek.

A Greek government-chartered ferry transported 2,600 Syrian refugees to the Greek mainland on Wednesday, according to AFP. The Eleftherios Venizelos left the island of Kos carrying around 1,700 Syrian refugees, having arrived at the island on Friday to offer temporary accommodation and allows officials to review permission requests to allow refugees and migrants to travel on to the mainland. The ship is expected to arrive in the northern port city of Thessaloniki on Thursday morning, after calling at the islands of Kalymnos, Leros and Lesbos to pick up another 900 people.

Greece is giving Syrian refugees priority status for travelling on the ferries to the mainland over other nationalities, due to the refugee status given to them under international law as they flee Syria's civil war.

The government has announced plans to charter a second ship to ferry as many migrants as possible to the mainland from the islands, according to AFP, although large vessels are difficult to find as the tourism season is underway, according to the association of ferry operators.

"There are no ferries available at present (and) next week there will be a problem as the ferries will be at near 100 percent capacity," association chairman Michalis Sakellis told Vima radio.

Greek Island Ferries Fully Booked as Refugees Stream to Mainland | World