ATHENS – Finally heeding the calls of human rights groups and activists, Greece's New Democracy government is going ahead with transferring hundreds of refugees and migrants from the overcrowded Moria detention camp on Lesbos to the mainland.
The first group of 249 arrived in the port of Piraeus on May 4 as part of plans to move 2,380 off islands.
There are more than 18,000 people crammed into a space designed for one-sixth that and there has been frequent tension and violence between ethic groups and with riot police called in to quell trouble in a place so bad that the BBC called it “the worst in the world,” holding people seeking asylum.
There are about another 2,000 living outside the camp in makeshift shelters and tents while Moria has been criticized as being inhumane, with not enough toilets or showers and housing unaccompanied minors.
There are some 38,000 refugees and migrants on five Greek islands near Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
They had gone to Turkey fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Afghanistan and Syria's civil war, and leaving behind poor economic conditions in other countries, hoping to find a better life in Europe before the EU closed its borders.
That left them with the option of going to Greece to find sanctuary but asylum reviews can take two years or longer, standing most in the camps and with worry in the government about whether they would breed cases of the COVID-19 Coronavirus.
There haven't been any reported although the detainees are in close proximity, inside the recommended social distancing of 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart but the anxiety of the virus still persists.
While moving them off islands technically violates the suspended swap deal, the government is proceeding in a bid to reduce overcrowding and tension, after behests from island officials and residents.
“Authorities are getting ready to transfer a group of about 395 migrants seen as vulnerable later today to the mainland via ship,” a police official, who declined to be named told the news agency Reuters.
“The goal is to transfer about 2,400 from island camps to mainland Greece,” a Migration Ministry official also said.