With eye on Syria, Greece expands refugee transfers

International

Migrants and refugees arrive from Lesbos island to the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. In the last 24 hours 668 refugees and migrants have been transferred to mainland Greece from five Greek islands as authorities have accelerated efforts to ease over crowding in the camps. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities are expanding a program to transfer migrants and refugees from overcrowded camps on the islands to the mainland amid concern that the number of arrivals from nearby Turkey could continue to rise.

More than 500 asylum-seekers arrived early Monday on ferries from the islands at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, and were being taken in buses to a newly setup camp in northern Greece.

An expected incursion by Turkish forces into northeastern Turkey has increased concern in Greece that more refugees may try to reach the European Union following a summer surge in arrivals.

Transfers to the mainland were expanded Sunday and Monday to include all five Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea with refugee camps.

Most of the mainland arrivals were from the island of Lesbos where the government is struggling to reduce overcrowding at a camp. About 13,000 people live at a site designed for 3,000. A woman was killed in a fire at the camp last month, triggering violent protests.

Greece’s migration minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, said the government was planning to create smaller camps in multiple locations on the mainland.

“We are not transferring the camp overcrowding from one site to another,” Koumoutsakos told private Open TV Monday. “We will have smaller facilities spread out across the country and that will not disturb local communities and the situation will be better controlled.”

In neighboring North Macedonia, 27 migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan were discovered packed in a van near the border with Greece.Police said two Macedonian nationals were arrested on trafficking changes.

Although closed since 2016, the so-called Balkan route is still active for migrants on their way to prosperous European countries. Authorities in North Macedonia say there have been 10,000 attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally in a first half of this year.

___

Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Srdjan Nedeljkovic at https://twitter.com/SrdjanTV and Derek Gatopoulos at https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.