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UNHCR: Greece Facing 'Unprecedented' Refugee Emergency

Syrian refugees disembark from a Greek ferry after arriving in the port of Piraeus near Athens, June 14, 2015.

Greece is facing an “unprecedented” refugee emergency, as the number of refugees arriving in the Greek islands continues to rise, averaging 1,000 people daily, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday.

The UNHCR said that more than 77,000 people had arrived by sea in Greece as of July 3, 2015, attempting to escape armed conflicts and poverty in their countries of origin. Almost 60 percent were refugees from Syria. Others came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.

Greece’s volatile economic situation, combined with the increasing numbers of new arrivals, is putting a severe strain on small island communities, which lack the basic infrastructure and services to adequately respond to the growing humanitarian needs, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said in Geneva.

According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, Greek and Turkish services rescued 19 people — eight by the Greek Coast Guard, 11 by the Turkish Coast Guard — in the 24 hours leading up to Friday morning. Five bodies were retrieved and up to 16 people were still missing and feared to have drowned.

“Greece is part of the European Union and this is happening in Europe,” Spindler said “We would like the European Union to have a much more active role in responding to the situation in Greece."

The refugees arriving in Greece take a perilous journey in hopes for a better life in western and northern European countries. Most of them transit through the Balkan countries, which altogether saw a ninefold increase in asylum applications in the first half of 2015 compared with the same period of last year.

VOA's Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.