ATHENS Greece is slipping into a "danger zone" without the funds or resources to handle a fast-growing wave of refugees trying to enter the European Union from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, the government warned on Thursday.
A surge in people fleeing violence in Africa and the Middle East has increased the pressure on the euro zone's most indebted country, a major gateway into the EU for migrants who attempt risky boat crossings through porous sea borders.
The latest influx was driven mainly by wars in Syria, the Gaza Strip, Libya and northern Iraq, Shipping and Maritime Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told reporters.
"We are facing a great challenge," Varvitsiotis said, adding that there was a pool of more than two million migrants - half of whom are Syrian and other migrants now in neighboring Turkey - who could attempt to enter the EU via Greece.
"Definitely due to the budget limitations we are having, the limited resources and the lack of great support from the European Union, I think that we are getting into a danger zone."
Greece's worst post-World War Two economic slump has forced many thousands out of work and catapulted the far-right, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party to prominence as the country's third largest political force. Human rights groups says migrants face routine discrimination and are often at risk of racist assault.
The Greek Coast Guard said it detained more than 17,000 undocumented migrants - over half of them Syrians - in the first eight months of this year, up 55 percent from the same period in 2013. Migrant arrests at sea are forecast to triple to more than 31,000 by the end of the year, compared with 2013.
Intercepted migrants are kept in austere detention centers pending court decisions on asylum requests, which can take a long time to resolve.
GREECE SEEKING EU HELPING HAND
Greece has long complained of getting little money and support from EU authorities to deal with a steady influx of migrants from Asia and Africa, a situation exacerbated by the country's debt crisis that left it nearly bankrupt in 2012.
Since July, Greece has requested an additional 63 million euros in EU funds, Varvitsiotis said. The biggest risk posed by the migrant stream, he said, was a "loss of lives."
The Greek Coast Guard says Europe's border control agency Frontex contributed 2.2 million euros last year while Athens has spent nearly three times as much each month to maintain its maritime patrolling unit.
Nearly 2,000 people fleeing Africa and the Middle East have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, most of them in the past three months as they tried to reach Europe from Libya, the United Nations refugee agency said this month.
The Greek Coast Guard has rescued 6,421 migrants since the start of the year, up 156 percent from a year ago. Around 50 have drowned in their attempt to cross the Greek sea borders.
Athens has been regularly criticized by the U.N. refugee agency for its treatment and detention of migrants. Greece was accused of triggering a fatal accident in January when a migrant boat being towed back toward Turkish waters by the Coast Guard capsized, killing 11 migrants. Greece denied blame.
Italy is another EU Mediterranean country that has grappled with a migrant influx. Last month the European Commission acceded to longstanding Italian requests for help by launching an EU version of Italy's sea rescue operation to help it deal with droves of seaborne migrants.
(Editing by Deepa Babington and Mark Heinrich)