ATHENS: A ship crammed with thousands of mostly Syrian refugees docked in Greece’s main port of Piraeus today, after the government said it was stepping up efforts to ease pressure on an eastern island being overwhelmed by new arrivals.

The government-chartered ship had set off overnight from Lesbos, where migrants had massed to get on board. Television pictures showed them disembarking calmly just before midday.

The Red Cross on Monday described conditions on the Aegean island - a short boat journey from Turkey where there are some 2 million Syrian refugees - as a humanitarian disaster.

Interim Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said Lesbos was hosting 15,000 to 18,000 migrants, three to four times more than it could cope with.

He told state TV on Monday the government planned to move 12,000 refugees from Lesbos by Saturday by increasing the number of ships to Piraeus from three to four or five.

Over the past nine days, the coastguard estimates Greek authorities have moved close to 18,000 refugees from Lesbos to the mainland. That total includes those who arrived today on board the Eleftherios Venizelos, which has a capacity of 2,500.

The vast majority of those arriving at Piraeus, which is part of the Athens conurbation, are hoping to move on to other European countries and, once disembarked, almost immediately head north, creating a second bottleneck at the border with Macedonia.

Coping with an economy already stretched close to breaking point, Greek authorities on Monday asked the European Union to help tackle the crisis in Lesbos by activating its crisis-response body to provide staff, medical and pharmaceutical supplies, clothes and equipment.

Greece has also applied for 9.6 million euros ($10.7 million) in emergency EU funding.