LESBOS, Greece – A violent clash between right-wing extremists and leftists and police trying to protect refugees and migrants who were being attacked on the island of Lesbos has Greek officials anxious there could be more trouble and that the numbers arriving from nearby Turkey will start to pick up in the good weather.
New Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas, who took over from the much-criticized Yiannis Mouzalas, said he is worried there will be a big uptick in the flows during a long-suspended European Union swap deal with Turkey, which has taken back only a relative handful who are ruled ineligible for asylum.
Greece is stuck with more than 64,000 refugees and migrants, including some 15,000 on islands, primarily Lesbos, Chios and Samos, who were sent there by human traffickers that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to let operate and with fears more could now try to get into Greece through the border along the Evros River.
Vitsas said there’s been a 400 percent hike in the number of arrivals since last year when there were about 54 daily, now jumping to 206 on average.
Between January and April, more than 7,000 migrants and refugees arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean, he said, noting that just 112 people were returned to Turkey during that same period.
He said he was growing equally anxious about refugees and migrants using land routes, particularly in the region where two Greek soldiers who were patrolling have been detained in Turkey after accidentally crossing the border.
“I’m not scared about the islands because we know what we have to do. What is really worrisome is the huge increase through Evros,” he said, according to Kathimerini.
More than 2,700 have crossed Turkey’s land border with Greece so far this year, Vitsas said.
The detention centers and camps on the island have come under brutal criticism from human rights groups who said they aren’t fit for humans and as the mayors have appealed for help they’re not getting, leading to more violence such as the riot on Lesbos.
Vitsas said that his ministry has prepared two plans to deal with the situation and pledged to outline their content to political party leaders in private but is keeping them secret, even from island officials who are the most affected. He didn’t say why he wouldn’t make them public.
Greek border guards near the Evros said migrants and refugees are sneaking in almost nightly, the paper said.
Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos said besides extremists that the local residents who have reached out to help for more than two years are getting exasperated at the lack of help from the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition.
The new head of the Greek Asylum Service, Markos Karavias, signed an agreement effectively restricting migrants arriving on the Aegean islands from traveling on to the mainland even though Greece’s highest court said new arrivals can’t be kept on the islands and are free to go wherever they want. There was no explanation for the contradiction.