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Syrian Migrants Are Now Being Processed On A Cruise Ship In Greece

Staff on board the ship processed 300 migrants Sunday, as tensions on the Greek holiday island mount over a recent influx of refugees.
August 17, 2015, 8:00pm
Syrian refugees wait to board a Greek cruise liner, converted into a refugee processing ship, in the harbor of the Greek island of Kos, Greece, August 16, 2015. Odysseus/EPA

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Unable to cope with the recent influx of migrants, local authorities on the Greek holiday island of Kos have started processing migrants on board a passenger ferry.

Tensions on Kos have risen in recent days, with migrants desperate to register with the Greek authorities so they can continue on to the mainland.

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Requisitioned Friday by Greece's interior ministry, the ANEK Lines operated Eleftherios-Venizelos cruise liner can accommodate between 2,000 and 2,500 people.

The ferry, which usually takes tourists around the Aegean Sea's Dodecanese island group, is today docked in the main harbor at Kos.

Some of the Dodecanese islands — including Kos — are just a few miles north of the Turkish coast, where thousands of migrants wait for an opportunity to reach the shores of Europe.

The situation in Kos reached a boiling point Wednesday when close to a thousand refugees were forced to spend 24 hours in a soccer stadium without food and with very little water, awaiting registration.

Police sprayed migrants with fire extinguishers to disperse crowds outside the stadium. On Thursday, riot police units were sent to Kos from Greece's capital Athens to contain the violence.

Related: Hundreds of Migrants Locked in Greek Soccer Stadium as Kos Crisis Hurtles 'Out of Control'

An estimated 7,000 migrants reached Kos in July, and local authorities have struggled to cope with the recent increase in arrivals.

Speaking to VICE News Monday, Theisen said that while MSF is currently "the only NGO present on the ground," the organization receives "support" from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and from "a local support network made up of villagers and other residents in the area."

The Eleftherios-Venizelos, which can house up to 2,500 refugees, is staffed by a team of 110 people, according to news site GreekReporter.

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"They had originally announced there would be Greek doctors on board," Theisen told VICE News, "but in fact, there won't be any."

Theisen denied earlier reports that the ship would be transporting refugees to other areas of Greece.

"The boat is not going anywhere, it will remain docked in the port of Kos, where it will be used to register claims by Syrian migrants," said Theisen.

Migrants fleeing the civil war in Syria are being given priority during processing because of their refugee status.

"Migrants will board the boat, where they will be registered and where they will file a claim for a pass," explained Theisen, referring to the renewable document that allows refugees to travel legally inside Greece for up to 6 months.

Related: Migrants Suffer as Greek Islands Buckle Under Dual Crises

While it is "unclear" where the refugees will be housed once they have registered, Theisen said that migrants would "spend one or two nights in a room on board the ferry."

She said more than 300 migrants had already been processed on Sunday, adding that migrants whose claims have been processed have been "continuously evacuated [from Kos], thanks to frequent maritime links."

"Things have gotten much better since Thursday," said Theisen.

According to the NGO worker, nearly 3,000 migrants have already been taken to other areas in Greece since Thursday.

Described by MSF as "a pilot project," the initiative has caused resentment among other migrant communities in Kos.

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"People from other countries, including Afghanistan, have asked us why access to the boat is reserved to Syrians," said Theisen. "We're worried that tensions will rise again on the island — and we're already overwhelmed."

MSF is currently running a makeshift hospital for migrants out of the Captain Elias hotel, a disused building without electricity. Doctors inside the "dilapidated" hotel have been providing medical assistance to injured migrants and to migrants "who have been victims of violence on the island," said Theisen.

In — MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea)12 Août 2015

Theisen noted an increase in "reported attacks" against migrants off the coast of Greece.

"In the last few weeks, some migrants have told us that they were attacked at sea by boats," said Theisen. Concerned by the high number of reported incidents, MSF staff have alerted the Greek authorities, who have pledged to investigate the alleged attacks.

When contacted by VICE News Monday, the Greek interior ministry was unable to comment on the reports in time for publication.

The ministry was also unable to confirm how long the floating migrant processing center would be docked in Kos, and whether or not the initiative would be extended to migrants from other countries.

Related: Greek Coast Guard Accused of Sinking Migrant Boat

On Saturday, two Belgian tourists who were on board a ship off the coast of the island of Rhodes rescued a migrant who was adrift in the sea. One of the tourists spotted the woman on a picture he had just taken and immediately alerted the captain. The woman was rescued six miles from the coast, between the islands of Rhodes and Symi.

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According to the UNHCR, an estimated 124,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece by sea since the start of 2015 — a 750 percent increase over the same period in 2014. Many of them come from Turkey, where there are currently 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Like Kos, the islands of Chios and Lesbos are also struggling to keep up with the rising number of migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. Speaking in Brussels Friday, the EU's Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos described the migrant crisis in Europe as "the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War."

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c

Image via Wikimedia Commons