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Greek Coast Guard Rescues More Than 1,400 Migrants In Aegean Sea


Over the weekend, the Greek coast guard plucked more than 1,400 migrants from the sea. They had come from Turkey, mostly on rafts, hoping to make it to Greece. That country is now the main entry point by sea into the European Union for people fleeing war and poverty. But Greece, which is facing a huge economic crisis, is poorly equipped to handle the influx of desperate refugees landing on their shores. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: More than 124,000 migrants have crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece so far this year. The increase is staggering. The numbers are 750 percent higher than the same period last year. Most are refugees from Syria. One destination is the island of Kos, which is just two-and-a-half nautical miles from the Turkish coast. Kos has just one shelter at an abandoned hotel called the Captain Elias. The shelter is not official, says Constance Theisen, who works for Doctors Without Borders on Kos.

CONSTANCE THEISEN: Kos is a place that is not managed by the authorities and where nothing is provided by the authorities, so no shelter, no hygiene facilities, no food.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: When I visited the Captain Elias Hotel in May, it was already overcrowded. People were camped in the weeds outside. Inside, more people slept side-by-side on dirty blankets on what used to be the hotel lobby. The stairs were covered in trash.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Are they sleeping?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I knocked on one door upstairs. Two Syrian families - four adults and six toddlers - were inside. They sat on two mattresses salvaged from the trash. Their toilet was broken.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "Here, there's no electricity, no water and no food," said Wafa Ali, a young mother holding her 1-year-old daughter. The number of refugees to Kos has now tripled since that report. Theisen, of Doctors Without Borders, says there are even more families camping outside. The hotel is too crowded, too filthy. Until recently, the migrants got their meals from volunteers, but now they've run out of money.

THEISEN: But now, unfortunately, two weeks ago, they had to announced that they would stop, so now there's nothing being distributed to the people.

KAKISSIS: Fifty-thousand migrants arrived on the Greek islands in July alone. On the island of Lesvos, the two main shelters there are badly overcrowded. The mayor of Lesvos has been pleading for help for months. The U.N.'s Refugee Agency has called on the European Union to help, and the EU came through today. It said it would give Greece about half-a-billion dollars for refugee care and sea patrols. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.