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Greece reopens Olympic venue to cope with refugees

Greece vows to improve management of refugee crisis in bid to tamp down ‘extremist, racist, xenophobic views’

Authorities in Greece reopened a disused Olympic venue on Thursday to house refugees and economic migrants camped out in central Athens, as officials vowed to improve management of the crisis in a bid to tamp down “extremist, racist” sentiments. 

Police escorted buses carrying about 500 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, from Victoria Square in central Athens to the mothballed Galatsi Olympic Hall.

The facility was used for table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics during the 2004 Athens Games and is the second major Olympic venue reopened to accommodate refugees in recent weeks.

Yiannis Mouzalas, an interior minister in charge of migration affairs, promised to try to swiftly improve management of the refugee crisis to avoid "local residents becoming susceptible to extremist, racist, xenophobic views."

The massive influx of refugees has been met with anger among hard-line social conservatives across Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in an early September address to European Union leaders that Muslims — who make up many of the refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — were not welcome in his country. A series of fires at refugee resettlement facilities in Germany has been investigated as arson, believed to have targeted new immigrants. While no major attacks of this type have been recently reported in Greece, the refugee crisis has renewed support for anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn.

In Athens, residents and an anti-racism group held small protests at the square Thursday, urging the government to do more to ease the effects of the crisis.

Most of the refugees are from Syria, where a four-year civil war has killed more than 320,000 people — including 11,493 children — and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations and London-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Of the more than 522,000 refugees and economic migrants who have made the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, more than 388,000 have arrived via Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 250 have died attempting to travel to Greece from Turkey by water, the organization reports.

A 34-year-old woman and 2-year-old boy died when a vessel carrying refugees capsized off the coast of the eastern Greek town of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Wednesday, English-language Greek news site Tovima reported. Greece's coast guard reportedly saved 48 others in the incident. 

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for the international community to work together to establish more formal mechanisms for resettling refugees from Syria. 

"We have to build the necessary resettlement mechanism for countries bordering Syria. These resettlement mechanisms together will give hope to these people, discouraging them from trusting traffickers," Tsipras said, adding that governments around the world must "act decisively in favor of reconciliation" between Damascus and Syrian rebels to address the roots of the refugee crisis. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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