PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of migrants reached Greece's main port near Athens on Thursday, with one telling of a perilous journey from Syria dodging armed Turkish border guards and begging for water, food and blankets during her family's quest to reach the safety of Europe.
Greece has been overwhelmed this year by record numbers of migrants reaching its eastern Aegean islands clandestinely from the nearby Turkish coast, with more than 160,000 arriving since January. In a bid to ease the overcrowding on the islands, the government chartered a ferry that transported about 2,500 migrants to the port of Piraeus.
Vian Baker, a 21-year-old Syrian student from Aleppo, said she was heading to Europe along with her father and sister to continue her studies, which were interrupted due to the war in her homeland.
"We couldn't live there. Bombs and war," Baker said after disembarking from the ferry.
She described a dangerous 15-day journey from Aleppo to Greece that included hiding for six hours in the woods on the Turkish-Syrian border to find an opportunity to cross at night, and then dodging Turkish border guards who she said fired into the air. From Turkey, she and her family crossed over to the small Greek island of Leros in a three-hour sea journey.
"We faced death," Baker said, adding that once on the island, there were no facilities for the new arrivals.
"We slept on the street. We didn't have blankets. We didn't have anything. Even water. I don't know what to tell you. We begged for water, we begged for food," she said.
The ferry had served as a registration center on the eastern Aegean island of Kos earlier this week. It left Kos Wednesday with about 1,300 migrants and picked up hundreds more from the islands of Leros, Kalymnos and Lesbos.
The vast majority of migrants do not want to stay in Greece, a financially troubled country with unemployment at more than 26 percent. They head north to Greece's border with Macedonia and then through the Balkans toward the more prosperous European nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.
But a move Thursday by Macedonia to step up security on the border risked blocking the route and leaving thousands stranded on the Greek side of the border, from which hundreds cross daily.
The Macedonian government said it was proclaiming a state of emergency on its borders, and that both police and army would control the 50-kilometer (30 mile) frontier to stop the massive influx of migrants from Greece. About 2,000 people were blocked on the Greek side Thursday evening.
Hamsa Al Halabiah, a 44-year-old Syrian who fled her home country about four years ago to Lebanon and then Turkey, said she was among those heading to Germany, where her brother-in-law lives.
"We hope to find a better future for our kids, for our children. (The situation in Syria) is too bad, very bad. It's terrible, it's miserable, no words can express the reality in Syria now," she said.
Germany says it could face as many as 800,000 migrants this year — four times the number from last year. It now handles 43 percent of all asylum applications in the 28-nation European Union and says Europe has to come up with a better way to share the burden.
The Greek government has appeared unprepared for the massive influx, with island authorities complaining they have been left understaffed and underfunded to deal with hundreds of new migrants arriving each day.
The Greek coast guard, meanwhile, said it had picked up 519 people in 16 search-and-rescue operations in the last 24 hours off the islands of Samos, Agathonissi, Kos and Farmakonissi. The figure does not include the hundreds of migrants who made it to the islands themselves in inflatable dinghies.
Delays in registering new arrivals and a shortage of available ferry tickets to the Greek mainland has led to thousands of migrants being stranded on the islands, with tensions running high.
Among those from the ferry in Piraeus aiming to head north right away was 17-year-old Ahmad Mohammad, who said it took him 10 days to get to Greece.
"The trip was so tiring and we had a lot of problems," he said. "Now we will go to Thessaloniki and then to Europe. Maybe Germany, maybe Switzerland, I don't know."
Becatoros reported from Athens. Dusan Stojanovic in Gevgelija, Macedonia, contributed.