KOS, Greece (AP) — Greece's coast guard rescued more than 1,400 migrants near several Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea over the past three days as the pace of new arrivals increases, authorities said Monday.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, have been making their way from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands in inflatable dinghies, overwhelming cash-strapped and understaffed authorities on the islands. The vast majority then head to mainland Greece and from there, try to reach more prosperous European Union countries by either walking across the Balkans from northern Greece, or sneaking onto Italy-bound ferries from the west.
The 1,417 migrants rescued between Friday morning and Monday morning were picked up at sea in 59 incidents off the coasts of the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Agathonisi and Kos, the coast guard said.
Those figures do not include the hundreds of others who manage to reach the islands' coasts themselves, walking to the main towns to turn themselves in to local authorities and receive registration papers.
The increasing pace of arrivals comes on top of the roughly 124,000 migrants who reached the Greek islands by boat in the first seven months of 2015, a 750 percent increase from the same period last year, according to UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency. In July alone, there were 50,000 arrivals, about 70 percent from Syria. Most land on five islands: Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros.
In all, 156,726 migrants had been arrested for entering or remaining in the country illegally from January through July this year, compared to 32,070 for the same period last year, the Greek police said Monday.
The numbers have overwhelmed cash-strapped and understaffed police and coast guard officials on the islands, where authorities are unable to keep up with the new arrivals and process them fast enough, leaving many living on the streets or in precarious temporary shelters.
Tension has often escalated on several of the islands, with fights breaking out among groups of migrants, or between migrants demanding faster processing and coast guard or police officers.
On Monday, a policeman holding a knife roughly pushed back migrants crowding outside a local authority building in Kos, slapping one man across the face as he shoved others, telling them to get back behind a line he drew on the pavement with the knife.
The scene was filmed by an Associated Press cameraman, before another policeman put his hand in front of the camera and made him stop filming.
The policeman was suspended and an investigation ordered into his actions after the images appeared on social media, Greece's police headquarters said in a statement.
"There are thousands of people here. Every day comes about 1,000 people and they give every day paper for 200 people, 300 people and so many people are sleeping in the streets," said Mohammed Riski, a 28-year-old Syrian migrant from Yefrin who arrived on Kos seven days ago. "All of the hotels are full. There are no toilets or any services."
More than 150 migrants in at least six boats landed on Kos just in the early hours of Monday.
Some 40 Syrians waved and cheered as their boat arrived at the popular tourist destination. Men jumped into the water to help women and children off the dinghy. One man was so overcome with emotion that he began to sob.
Mukhtar, a Somali migrant who arrived further north, on the island of Lesbos, said he was trying to get to Norway where his family lives.
"I haven't seen my family for 20 years," said Mukhtar, who would only give his first name. "I want to see my family."
It was not his first attempt to reach Greece.
"It was very dangerous by the sea. We traveled four times, they caught us three times but the fourth time ... we came here on a safe boat," Mukhtar said.
Arrivals have become so frequent they are now seen as routine by locals. On Kos, local residents and hotel employees watched unfazed Sunday as a dozen Pakistani migrants punctured their life raft and gathered their belongings as soon as they landed, and asked for directions to the nearest migrant detention center.
Greece, in the throes of its worst financial crisis, is straining to accommodate the inflow. Hundreds are camping out in a public park in Athens. The leftist government is now building a reception center in central Athens where it says migrants will be free to come and go as they please. It expects to start moving people from parks by Tuesday.
Nedeljkovic reported from Mytilene, Greece. Demetri Nellas and Elena Becatoros in Athens and Lida Filippakis in Mytilene contributed.