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Ferry Plan to Ease 'Critical' Refugee Backlog on Lesbos, Greece

Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos are suck in a bureaucratic trap, but there is now a plan to move them to Athens using ferries.

LESBOS, Greece — Police officer, cardiologist, former political prisoner — no matter what you used to be, you’re reduced to nothing on this Mediterranean island, caught in a limbo with no exit.

An estimated 20,000 refugees and migrants are backed up here, their first staging point in a journey from Syria and elsewhere towards a new life in the West.

Despite appalling conditions — thousands are sleeping on the street — authorities have slowed the process of getting off the island by insisting on bureaucracy.

More Syrian refugees are arriving every day, including these who landed on Lesbos Monday on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey.Petros Giannakouris / AP

Nobody has been allowed to leave without the right paperwork, yet police on Monday removed temporary registration centers at the port and a refugee camp.

Frustration is boiling over in the 100 F heat, with no water or facilities to cool the anger. Afghans have scuffled with Syrians, angry that the latter are getting preferential treatment due to their status as refugees from civil war.

“This place is like a prison,” cardiologist Qutaiba Taleb from the Syrian capital of Damascus told NBC News. “We have been here seven days. We are not homeless, we are country-less. We just want to find a better life in Germany.”

Pointing to two friends, he added: “The government here looks at us like we’re gypsies. I’m not — I’m a doctor. He’s a doctor, he’s a doctor. We are three doctors. We are not gypsies. We are human beings.”

Doctors Without Borders aid worker Anna Halford described the port area as “like a pressure cooker,” adding that the only solution was to allow refugees to board ferries over to the mainland.

Syrian refugees wait at the port of Lesbos to board a ferry traveling to Athens on Monday.Petros Giannakouris / AP

On Tuesday, authorities appeared to have bowed to pressure and announced a series of ferry transfers off the island. Over the coming days, three ships — each with a capacity of about 2,000 — will set sail for Athens and return empty until the backlog has been cleared.

“We have reached a solution today and in four or five days this will be solved,” Alessandra Morelli, U.N. refugee agency representative on Lesbos, told NBC News. “There is a bottleneck because the registration process is very slow but there is a plan, a solution.” She described the situation on the island as “critical.”

In the meantime, those left to cope on the island include Ahmad Fawzi, a policeman from Iraq’s ISIS-threatened Anbar province who has been shot twice in the course of his duties, and a Syrian who was held as a political prisoner for 10 years.

“Why are we here? Where are the authorities?” the ex-prisoner asked NBC News. “Can you help us?"

Alastair Jamieson contributed.