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article imageEU fast-tracks funding as migrant crisis accelerates

By Lachlan Carmichael with Serene Assir in Kos, Greece (AFP)     Aug 14, 2015 in World

The European Union pledged Friday to fast-track new funding to help debt-hit Greece cope with a surge in migrants, with hundreds coming ashore daily only to be confronted by often hellish conditions.

Authorities on the island of Kos have been so overwhelmed that the government sent a ferry to serve as a temporary centre to issue travel documents to Syrian refugees -- among some 7,000 migrants stranded on the island of about 30,000 people.

Brutal conditions were reported on Kos earlier this week, with a single water hose and just two toilets for over 1,000 migrants crammed into a football stadium under baking sun waiting for travel papers.

Greece is just one of the flashpoints of a migrant crisis erupting across Europe. Housing is particularly a concern, with rights activists slamming conditions for refugees in Austria and asylum seekers in Germany getting a decidedly mixed welcome.

Migrants watch the arrival of the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry  which will stay moored at Kos for som...
Migrants watch the arrival of the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry, which will stay moored at Kos for some two weeks, during which authorities will register newcomers to the Greek island, August 14, 2015
Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP

"Today the world finds itself facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a press conference.

In response to the situation in Greece, the European Commission is fast-tracking a Greek request for 2.7 million euros ($3 million) to support UN efforts to deal with the migrants arriving on the Aegean islands, Avramopoulos said.

Greece will also soon receive a first disbursement of 30 million euros from a total of 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) of funding for all 28 EU member states to cope with the flood of migrants until 2020.

The money comes as the number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency said.

Some 124,000 refugees and migrants landed on the Greek islands during the first seven months of the year -- up 750 percent from 2014, according to UN figures.

Syrian migrants watch the arrival of the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry from their makeshift encampment...
Syrian migrants watch the arrival of the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry from their makeshift encampment on the coast of the Greek island of Kos, August 14, 2015
Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP

And about 102,000 people have traveled from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy so far this year -- compared to 2014, when 170,000 made the trip during the entire year, the International Organization for Migration.

Activists were cautiously positive about the new funding for Greece, while calling for a bolder response to the migrants crisis.

"Today's measures announced by the Commission, if correctly channeled towards those in need, may help support the country and vulnerable people," said Iverna McGowan, acting Director for Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

"But overall a broader rethink of EU asylum policies and practices is needed", she added.

- 'God was kind' -

Meanwhile on Friday Amnesty International slammed conditions at Austria's main refugee camp as a "disgraceful" violation of human rights, highlighting what it called the "inhumane" plight of more than 1,700 unaccompanied children.

Refugees wait to enter the processing centre in Traiskirchen  Austria  on July 31  2015
Refugees wait to enter the processing centre in Traiskirchen, Austria, on July 31, 2015
Joe Klamar, AFP/File

The human rights organisation visited the Traiskirchen camp, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Vienna, last week, a day after the overcrowded centre stopped accepting new arrivals because of disastrous sanitary conditions.

Built to house 1,800 people, the camp and an adjacent government building are currently home to 4,000 men, women and children.

"The situation of unaccompanied children and adolescents is particularly precarious," Amnesty spokeswoman Daniela Pichler said at a news conference.

Across the border in Germany record numbers of refugees have arrived, only to face another kind of chaos than the one they fled -- desperately overcrowded shelters struggling under the massive influx.

In uglier cases, xenophobic protesters and far-right thugs have hounded and abused the foreigners. The number of attacks on homes for asylum-seekers has shot above 200 this year, already reaching last year's total.

A young boy sits by food brought by citizens outside the Agency for Health and Social Welfare where ...
A young boy sits by food brought by citizens outside the Agency for Health and Social Welfare where hundreds of refugees wait to receive help from the Berlin administration on August 7, 2015
Tobias Schwarz, AFP

But in a more heartening trend, citizens moved by the plight of strangers have organised through schools, churches and Facebook groups to give what they can, from food to baby clothes to language lessons and even shelter.

Among the migrants still hoping to reach Europe, many gather nightly on Turkey's southern Aegean coast to make the five-kilometre (three-mile) sea crossing to Kos.

The migrants use inflatable boats designed for beach tourists which, despite the tempting proximity of Kos, are wholly unsuited for the trip.

"God was kind to us and we arrived in Greece safely," said Jamil, exhausted but overjoyed as he climbed out of a small inflatable boat that reached the shore at around 7:00 am (0400 GMT).

Still wearing his orange life vest, he prayed on the beach, thankful he had reached Greece.

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