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As conditions worsen, Greece promises ship to house refugees

Government will charter commercial ship to house 2,500 migrants currently sheltered in soccer stadium

Locked in a sunbaked soccer stadium without food, sufficient drinking water or proper sanitation, about 1,000 refugees lined up for hours on Wednesday to register with authorities on Greece's island of Kos, a hot spot of a humanitarian crisis sweeping the financially broken country.

After sending police reinforcements, the government promised to charter a ship to house up to 2,500 immigrants on the island, where authorities have been overwhelmed by a spike in arrivals.

Alekos Flambouraris, an aide to the prime minister, said the vessel would be used for shelter and checking documents. More details of the plan would be announced Thursday, his office said.

The order to charter a ship was given after violence broke out in front of a police station on the island, normally a vacation destination, where migrants were lining up to receive temporary residence documents. The soccer stadium is being used to provide shelter for about 1,000 people.

Greece has become the main gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of refugees and economic migrants, mainly Syrians fleeing war, since fighting in Libya has made an alternative route, from North Africa to Italy, increasingly dangerous. Nearly 130,000 people have arrived since January on Greece's eastern Aegean islands from nearby Turkey — a 750 percent increase over last year.

Scores of Syrians landed on Kos early Wednesday, crossing the 2.5-mile strait from Turkey in rubber boats — which, in many cases, local men rush to carry away for their own use.

"I feel good to be here, but I still miss my family" in Syria, said Omar Mohammad, a 25-year-old English literature graduate from Aleppo.

He said the three-hour crossing from Turkey was his third attempt to reach Greece in four days. On two previous occasions, Turkish officials prevented him from leaving.

Unlike during past immigration crises in Greece since the early 1990s, this time the refugees don't want to stay. Their ultimate destinations are wealthy countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, and all they seek from Greece are temporary travel papers to continue their trek through the Balkans and Central Europe.

So they end up in the old stadium or outside on the beach in tents or under trees.

Inside the stadium, three police clerks were struggling to register hundreds of refugees, and for the second day used fire extinguishers to control the jostling crowd. That day, an estimated 300 travel documents were handed out by early afternoon.

The office on Kos for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the medical charity, deplored the conditions in the stadium, where most refugees were sent after being evicted from makeshift camps all around the town.

"What we see now is a completely disproportionate focus on security management of these people without the relative humanitarian assistance that they need," said MSF's Vangelis Orfanoudakis.

"There are just two toilets, no access to water. They now have put a water hose for all the people, the situation is really dramatic," he said.

Municipal officials weren't available to comment Wednesday but have long been lobbying for the refugees to be taken to mainland Greece. Mayor Giorgos Kyritsis has pledged to get them off parks and public areas.

MSF's Julia Kourafa said some refugees fainted from exhaustion or hunger in the stadium. Hundreds were seen climbing the 12-foot perimeter wall to go and buy food, and one man was taken away in an ambulance after he fell and seriously injured his leg.

Some refugees set up tents in the little shade available, and MSF teams planned to erect awnings.

"The situation here is very bad, and police here, they beat a boy, they beat a man, they beat children. It's too bad," Laith Saleh, a Syrian refugee in the stadium, told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. "We can't go out."

A group of young Syrian men from Latakia, who arrived that morning after an Italian coast guard vessel from a European border watch mission picked up their boat in the sea, rested on pavement behind the stadium and planned their next moves. Across the road, an elderly Greek couple handed out food to refugees perched on the wall.

The Syrians said that authorities gave them no information or directions whatsoever and that they were planning to enter the stadium Thursday.

"The people are not informed about the procedure," Orfanoudakis said. "They need to have access to health care, food, water, basic sanitation ... together with protection for their legal rights, something which is not happening at all here in Kos."

In the Psalidi area east of the town of Kos, newly arrived Syrians' first question was where they had landed — which provoked laughter, because "kos" has an obscene meaning in Arabic.

"Aleppo is the worst city in the world," said Dirar, another English graduate who made the crossing with Mohammad's group. He didn't give his last name to protect his family in Syria. "There's no electricity, no water, no Internet. My home was destroyed by a rocket blast," he said, showing a picture on his mobile phone of him in the wreckage.

"I was so happy to be alive that I took a selfie," he said. "From Greece, I will travel through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Germany."

The Associated Press

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