syrian migrants athens ship
Syrian migrants arrive at the port near Athens after being transported from the Greek islands on a ferryMilos Bicanski/Getty Images

A Greek government-chartered ferry carrying almost 2,500 Syrian refugees from islands in the eastern Aegean Sea has docked on the Greek mainland. The asylum-seekers boarded the car ferry in Kos, Kalymnos, Leros and Lesbos, the small islands where they had arrived on inflatable dinghies and small fishing boats from nearby Turkey.

Record numbers of migrants have overwhelmed Greece in the first half of 2015, with 160,000 migrants arriving by sea, according to the UNHCR. The figure is an increase of 750% on the same period in 2014. In July alone, there were 50,000 arrivals, about 70% of which are from Syria. Most landed on Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros.

Greek police and coastguard officials on the islands were largely unprepared, given their lack of funds and staff owing to the financial crisis. In an attempt to ease the overcrowding on the islands, the government chartered a ferry to transport about 2,500 migrants to the port of Piraeus, offering relieving authorities that have struggled to keep up with the new arrivals and process them fast enough.

The ferry was supposed to travel north to Greece's second city Thessaloniki, near the northern border, from where most of the migrants wanted to travel to other European countries. But it changed route, heading to Piraeus, within the Athens urban area, after local authorities warned that they would be unable to face the influx.

According to Reuters, a bus company told the AMNA news agency that it would transfer the refugees from Thessaloniki to Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border. Macedonia has also been also overwhelmed by migrants trying to smuggle to northern Europe.

Hundreds of Syrians fleeing the civil war where asking for bus directions to Thessaloniki, according to Reuters, at the Piraeus quayside before heading into central Athens. Some of them showed tickets costing €60 (£42) for a journey direct to Thessaloniki.

"First they told us the ship would go Thessaloniki, then Athens," Darek Khouja, 18, from Aleppo told Reuters. "I want to go to Germany. It has very good universities and I want to continue my studies, get on with my life."

Germany says it could receive as many as 800,000 migrants this year, according to AP. It now handles 43% of all asylum applications in the European Union.

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