ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece appealed to its European Union partners Friday for more help in policing its sea borders as immigrants increasingly make dangerous journeys to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Deputy Minister for Merchant Marine Thodoros Dritsas told The Associated Press it is "a matter of urgency" for EU countries to show greater solidarity with the financially struggling country.
He advocated more ships, aircraft and personnel, increased funding and stronger operational cooperation with EU border agency Frontex, which has been assisting Greece for the past five years.
"I don't think any country can handle (the influx) alone, it is a European problem," he said, after talks in Athens with Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri. Dritsas said that EU assistance would also ensure that refugees reaching Greek shores enjoy full humanitarian assistance, "without that bringing our country to its knees."
Greece is the EU's second biggest gateway, after Italy, for migrants. Most are families fleeing war in Syria.
Most arrive by sea, after risking the hazardous journey from neighboring Turkey, usually crammed into rickety boats provided by smuggling gangs that charge several thousand U.S. dollars per head. Fatal accidents are frequent, and the influx is expected to grow as weather conditions improve in the spring and summer.
Frontex's Leggeri said the Syrian conflict, developments in African countries and the breakdown of law and order in Libya have contributed to a "huge increase" in sea crossings.
Arrivals in Greece have more than doubled this year to exceed 10,000, with scores of people arriving daily on islands close to the Turkish coast. From there, they register with Greek authorities and then make their way by ferry to Athens, hoping to continue their clandestine journey to wealthier EU members with better welfare policies, such as Germany or Britain.
"From the first quarter of 2014 the flow has been constantly rising, and it appears that — as the causes of these flows are growing rather than diminishing — we may have a further increase," Dritsas said. "We need to handle it."