KOS, Greece (Reuters) - Overcome by emotion, the mayor of Kos handed out water, milk and food to hundreds of Syrian migrants on Friday as a huge passenger ship docked on the Greek island to serve as a floating reception center and dormitory.
Greece, whose parliament on Friday approved an 85 billion euro ($95 billion) bailout from foreign creditors, is struggling to cope with tens of thousands of desperate migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia even as it seeks to avoid financial meltdown.
Kos, within sight of Turkish shores, has found itself on the front line of the crisis as new migrants arrive in rubber dinghies at the rate of hundreds a day.
“We are gathering money, despite our limited capability. There are many anonymous Kos citizens, even poor people, who help the refugees despite their nearly non-existent resources,” said Mayor Giorgos Kyritsis, fighting back tears.
Short of food and water, migrants have been sheltering from the intense heat in tents, cardboard boxes and a makeshift reception center at a sports stadium, where scuffles broke out with police earlier in the week.
A cruise ship, the Eleftherios Venizelos, docked on the island on Friday to house 2,500 to 3,000 people and process their papers, but the first migrants were not due to board it until Saturday.
The white-painted ANEK Lines vessel, paid for by the Greek government, will provide assistance exclusively to Syrians. Authorities said people fleeing Syria’s civil war would be treated as refugees but those of other nationalities, including Africans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and many others, were considered migrants.
Mohammad Alliad, an English student from Syria, told Reuters earlier: “We hear a ship is coming but we have no information. We don’t know when we should go and with what priority. We still wait for our papers.
“We are suffering here under the sun and sleeping in the open. We want to move the soonest possible.”
He showed reporters what he said were bullet wounds on his leg from the Syrian war.
The European Union is struggling to cope with a migrant crisis that has seen more than 100,000 arrive in Italy and an estimated 140,000 in Greece so far this year. The effects have been felt from the shores of the Mediterranean to the northern French port of Calais, which is linked by the Channel Tunnel to England.
Many of those arriving in Italy and Greece are intent on reaching northern Europe, and the priority of the authorities on Kos is to move them to other parts of Greece.
Police Major General Zacharoula Tsirigoti said 1,900 Syrians would leave on Friday night on passenger ferries to Athens. But the mayor said around 800 migrants were arriving each day on Kos, one of Greece’s most popular holiday destinations. At least 4,000 are now camped out on the island.
Local businesses are suffering as many tourists choose to stay in their hotels, avoiding the streets, parks and coast where thousands of people are sleeping rough in improvised shelters strewn with trash.
In one incident witnessed by Reuters, a small migrant boy tried to cross a street without looking, causing a tourist to swerve and fall from his motorbike.
The tourist suffered minor head injuries, and Greek and Syrian passers-by helped him to clean his wounds.
Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey