In the first six months of this year, more refugees arrived in Greece than in any other European country, according to a new report from the U.N. refugee agency.
This is at a time when Greece's economy is teetering on the precipice, its politicians desperately wrangling with international creditors over the terms of a new bailout package. The country's banks are shut, a quarter of the populace is unemployed, and many Greeks once comfortably middle-class see a dystopian future for their homeland.
But for hundreds of thousands of Asian and African migrants, including many asylum seekers fleeing the Syrian civil war, Greece is a gateway to a better life in the European Union.
The report, by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says that the "eastern Mediterranean route," with migrants traveling through Turkey to enter Greece, "has now surpassed the central Mediterranean route [from North Africa to Italy] as the main source of maritime arrivals."
Over the past year, the world watched in horror as a succession of overcrowded boats bound for Italy and Greece's islands sank in the Mediterranean — turning the sea, in Pope Francis's words, into "a vast cemetery."
According to the U.N. statistics, the largest number of those arriving in Greece are from Syria, having fled their war-ravaged home through Lebanon and Turkey. This year's influx of migrants is rapidly eclipsing levels recorded in 2014.
In a lengthy exposé, my colleague Anthony Faiola charted the escape route of one Syrian family from Aleppo to Austria. After paying money to Ukrainian smugglers, they made their way to the tiny island of Tilos, population 299. Their journey was being replicated on a far larger scale.
More and more desperate Syrians like the Jinaids were pouring into Greece. They were hardly welcome. On the much larger neighboring island of Kos, overwhelmed with more than 7,000 migrants in the first four months of the year, arrivals were being crammed into a fetid husk of a hotel with no working toilet, no electricity and halls piled with rotting food.
These conditions received attention in the European media after admittedly myopic holidaygoers in Greece complained about the squalid, "disgusting" state of the islands' tourist infrastructure.
The family Faiola followed kept moving. They trekked through hills and forest, evaded wolves and police, until they found sanctuary in northern Europe — after a tangled, harrowing series of events.
Many of the migrants reaching Greece have no intention of remaining there. As UNHCR notes, of the 68,000 migrants who arrived in Greece, only about 5,100 have applied for asylum.
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