For thousands fleeing war, transit through Greece continues unabated

By Karolina Tagaris

By Karolina Tagaris

PIRAEUS, Greece (Reuters) - They cheered, waved and flashed the victory sign when their boat, packed with thousands of mainly Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, docked at Greece's main port of Piraeus on Friday.

As the stream of arrivals from Turkey across to Greece's islands continued unabated, nearly 4,000 people were ferried from the eastern islands of Lesbos and Chios to the mainland on Friday morning on two government-chartered ships.

They are the latest wave of a record number of at least 430,000 refugees and migrants to have taken rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 309,000 via Greece, according to International Organization for Migration figures.

"(It will continue) as long as the war continues," Greece's new migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, said after being sworn in on Friday. "Only the bad weather will stop them."

Nearly 4,000 people arrived on Wednesday and Thursday on Lesbos alone, making the most of the relatively calm weather before the Mediterranean is hit increasingly by storms as autumn progresses towards winter, making the crossing too dangerous for most refugees to attempt.

In Piraeus, parents lifted their young children on their shoulders and hurried across the quayside to the half-dozen buses taking them to the centre of Athens, their belongings in black plastic bags or small backpacks.

From there, almost all hope to leave Greece, its economy already stretched close to breaking point, in search of a better life in northern European after fleeing war, persecution and misery at home.

"We ran from the killing and the war in Syria," said Omar, a Palestinian from Damascus, who took the overnight boat alongside about 2,500 more people from Chios and Lesbos. He was unsure if he would head to Germany or Sweden.

He travelled for a week to Greece and hopes to bring his family along as well. His only request from Europe: "To treat us like human."


For others, the journey to Greece, the main gateway into the European Union, took much longer.

Sixty-four-year-old retiree Salim al-Joubouri fled Iraq's biggest city of Mosul with his wife and daughter last summer, shortly after Islamic State insurgents overran the city, hoping to be reunited with family in Austria.

They spent 11 months in Turkey before collecting about 2,000 dollars each for the trip from the coastal city of Izmir to Greece, only to find themselves stranded at a camp in Chios, in the open, with no sanitation.

"It was raining, we slept under the rain. No toilet, no bathroom," he said. "It was very , very bad, a bad situation," he said, as his wife pulled him towards one of the buses.

"I just want to continue my studies to become a doctor," his 19-year-daughter Amani said, her beaming face framed by a bright-red headscarf.

They were among thousands who had had no choice but to leave.

Mehdi, 29-year-old Afghan Hazara, a largely Shi'ite minority killed in the thousands during the Taliban's hardline Sunni Islamist rule of the 1990s, fled with his sister after Taliban threats to kill him because he had worked for the Americans.

"The Taliban told me that if you work here, I will kill you and I will kill all of your relations and parents too, your father, your mother, your sister and brother... I was compelled to leave," he said. "We just want to have a good life."

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)