Seven people die off Lesvos as tensions flare at crowded reception facility

UN refugee agency seeks support to enable Greek authorities to better process new arrivals reaching the island in up to 85 boats a day.

A group of refugees disembark an inflatable boat after reaching the Greek island of Lesvos.  © UNHCR/A. Zavallis

GENEVA, Oct 16 (UNHCR) - Authorities in Greece have reported up to seven people were killed - four of them children - in a collision between a smuggling boat and a Greek Coast Guard vessel off the coast of Lesvos, the UN refugee agency said today.

It added that UNHCR staff had also had to be evacuated from a crowded registration site after violence flared on Thursday as frustrations among refugees and migrants boiled over.

The collision between the Coast Guard patrol vessel and a wooden fishing boat carrying 38 people occurred off the island's north-western coastal town of Molyvos, the Greek Coast Guard said on Thursday (October 15).

Seven bodies, including those of the four children, were subsequently recovered. Thirty-one people were rescued following the incident. The Greek authorities have announced that they are investigating the matter, UNHCR said.

In a separate occurrence on Lesvos, several UNHCR and other staff were evacuated from the crowded Moria registration site outside the island's capital of Mitilini after violence erupted when groups of men frustrated by holdups tried to jump queues and force their way into the offices.

Registration at the site was suspended around midday and police had to be called in to try to quell the disturbances, which continued to flare into the evening.

The events took place amid the continuing arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants by sea from Turkey, which has increased pressure on the government's already overstretched reception and registration facilities on the island, UNHCR said.

"Both incidents, the maritime tragedy and the tensions on Lesvos, underscore once again the urgent need to rapidly establish proper reception facilities in Greece for receiving, assisting, registering and screening all new arrivals," UNCHR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told a news conference in Geneva.

So far this year, more than 450,000 refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece. More than 100 people have died attempting the crossing from Turkey to Greece this year, while across the Mediterranean as a whole more than 3,100 people have perished.

As many as 85 boats landed on Lesvos island on Wednesday (October 14) and possibly as many again yesterday and overnight, mainly along its northern shore where the channel separating Greece from Turkey is only about 10 kilometres.

A UNHCR protection officer reported that up to six boats could be seen approaching the shore throughout the day, most of them rubber rafts carrying about 50 people each.

"The surge in arrivals could be the result of a temporary improvement in the weather, a rush to beat the onset of winter, and a fear that European borders may soon close," Edwards said.

At present there are around 3,500-4,000 people on the north coast of the island. Bus transfers have been stopped because of overcrowding in the reception centres, and some people are now trying to walk the 70 kilometres across the island towards Mitilini.

In a visit to Greece earlier this week, UNHCR head António Guterres said it was absolutely essential that the country receive massive support from the European Union for adequate reception, registration and screening processes, which are also essential for the success of a planned relocation of refugees to other European countries, as well as for the return home of those found not in need of international protection.

Guterres has also urged governments to put in place more systems so that people can come to Europe legally and not resort to smugglers and other irregular routes. Such legal routes include increased resettlement from countries of first asylum, family reunification, private sponsorship schemes, humanitarian visas and more flexible visa arrangements for students, workers and others.

In a separate development, close to the Turkey-Bulgaria border, an Afghan man was shot dead last night in a rugged forested area near the town of Sredets in south-eastern Bulgaria.

"UNHCR is shocked by this incident. We understand the man was hit by a rebound bullet, fired by a Bulgarian border guard," Edwards told reporters. "We are urging the Bulgarian authorities to conduct an immediate investigation into this tragic incident and to make the findings known."