Mainland bound: Greece moves migrants out of island camps

A ship carrying more than 780 asylum-seekers who had been in a camp on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos has arrived in Greece's northern port of Thessaloniki

NEA KAVALA, Greece -- A ship carrying more than 780 asylum-seekers who had been in a camp on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos arrived in Greece's northern mainland port of Thessaloniki Tuesday morning, as part of government efforts to ease severe overcrowding and tackle a recent increase in new arrivals on the islands.

The ship docked in Thessaloniki a day after the arrival of another ship with more than 630 people, mostly Afghan families, who had also been staying in Lesbos' Moria camp.

Slightly more than half of the new arrivals are being taken to a temporary camp in Nea Kavala, in northern Greece, from where authorities said they will be moved next month to a camp currently under construction. The rest will head to other facilities in northern Greece.

Most of the asylum-seekers were taken to a camp set up at an old airfield in Nea Kavala, near the Greek border with North Macedonia, and were housed in large tents provided by the United Nations refugee agency. Newly arrived children played soccer while their parents were given sleeping bags and sanitary supplies and began setting up their new homes.

Noor Mohammad Yaqubi, a 28-year-old Afghan from Kabul, said the conditions were much better.

"In (Lesbos) there were four families sleeping in each tent. It got to a point were conditions were very bad. People were sleeping rough in the woods because there was no room for any more people," said Yaqubi, a father of three.

Vhid Ebrahimi, a 19-year-old Afghan, said there had been frequent outbreaks of violence at the Lesbos camp. He traveled from Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, to Greece with his parents and five siblings, and told the AP that his father had been shot and injured by the Taliban.

"We sold our house and left. I don't mind which country we live in, as long as it's calm," he said.

Hundreds of people continue to head to Greece from Turkey each week, despite a 2016 European Union-Turkey deal that provides for new arrivals on the eastern Aegean islands to be deported back to Turkey unless they are successful in their asylum application. The deal has left thousands of people stranded in dramatically overcrowded facilities on the islands, where camps are several times over capacity.

On Tuesday, the coast guard said a search and rescue operation was launched after authorities received a distress call from a boat carrying migrants off the eastern Aegean island of Samos. The vessel was spotted by a helicopter from the European Frontex border patrol agency, and the 51 passengers were safely picked up by a coast guard vessel and taken to Samos.

Separately, the coast guard said Tuesday that a patrol vessel had intercepted a sailboat with 58 migrants crammed aboard off the coast of the western Greek island of Kefalonia the previous day as it attempted to leave the country. Two people, aged 28 and 25, were arrested on suspicion of migrant smuggling.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened a national security council meeting over the weekend to discuss the migrant situation and a recent increase in the number of arrivals from nearby Turkey after nearly 600 people arrived on Lesbos in more than a dozen boats in the space of an hour last week.

Apart from the immediate transfer of nearly 1,500 people from Lesbos to the mainland, the council also decided to speed up the deportation of those whose asylum applications have been rejected, and to abolish the second-stage review of asylum applications. The government also announced increased border surveillance, the activation of a maritime surveillance system and the bolstering of the coast guard's fleet with 10 new speedboats.

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Becatoros reported from Athens.

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