ATHENS – Plans by the New Democracy government to take private properties to build new migrant detention centers on five Greek islands has officials and residents up in arms and in near-revolt in growing protests.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said there's been such resistance that a scheduled meeting with mayors on islands near the coast of Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending thousands more refugees and migrants, had to be postponed.
“We haven’t blindsided anyone,” Mitarakis said in televised comments after mayors reacted furiously to the announcement of of legislation allowing the state to requisition land on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, which are already holding some 50,000 in camps human rights groups said were inhumane.
The government plans the new centers to vet those ineligible for asylum, which virtually all are seeking to prevent being returned to Turkey under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
They had gone to Turkey first, fleeing war and strife in their homelands, in hopes of getting to Greece for sanctuary after the EU closed its borders to them and other countries in the bloc reneged on promises to help take some off the overload.
The government said it wants to separate refugees who feared for their lives from economic migrants seeking work but asylum applications reviews have bogged down, taking two years or more and the plan is to set up centers for those who would be sent back to Turkey.
But island officials and residents want them moved to the mainland and the government said it would close current camps on islands to set up the new facilities that are being protested.
“The government’s position on the issue of the closed centers has been known since November,” Mitarakis said, adding that new open camps are being planned on the mainland to accommodate more transfers from the islands, on top of the 20,000 refugees and migrants already moved.
“The new centers are will contribute to the significant decongestion of the islands, as they will have half the accommodation spots than the existing facilities,” the minister said.
Three island mayors weren't buying that argument though, frustrated with ignored repeated requests for more help, with violence becoming commonplace in the camps between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell trouble.
“The trust between the residents and the government has been lost,” Mytilini Mayor Efstratios Kytelis told Thema Radio, speaking from Lesbos where tension is growing between locals who had been compassionate when the crisis began, and the refugees and migrants.
There are some 20,000 being detained on Lesbos, some 18,000 in a camp designed for one-sixth that many and another 2,000 spilling out into an olive group, sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters in the dead of winter, including families with children who need health care.
“If a move were made to transfer 10,000 migrants, the mood would shift instantly,” he added, calling for the closure of the island’s notorious Moria camp and rejecting the plans for the new facility there.
Leros Mayor Michalis Kollias said that the local authority and residents are prepared “to put up a fight so that our island is not transformed into a huge hot spot.”
“Thousands of refugees have passed through our island since 2015 and then here comes the government, which promised to ease the pressure in its pre-election campaign, with a lightning move to requisition land, to pass the construction of a closed facility in the worst possible way,” Kollias added.
Also speaking to Thema radio, East Samos Mayor Giorgos Stantzos expressed his community’s “complete opposition” to the scheme. “The number one thing for us is the closure of the existing facility in Vathy,” said Stantzos, whose island has also seen a spike in tension in recent months.
The plan for a detention center is “unviable,” he added.
“Its impossible to provide water and sewerage to an entire city of 7,000 people within just a few months,” he said, stressing the absence of infrastructure to make such a camp possible.
Greece is planning to use emergency legal powers to create detention centers for migrants on the five islands to try and speed up deportations back to Turkey, officials said.
Areas have been earmarked to create the new facilities on Lesbos and the four other islands in the eastern Aegean Sea to eventually replace existing camps that are severely overcrowded, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said. "These closed facilities will be governed by strict rules and (limitations) for movement for the occupants," Petsas said. "Occupants will receive exit cards for controlled leave, while the structures will remain closed at night time."
He said fast-track legislative procedures will be employed to build the sites — with the government issuing an emergency decree to be ratified by Parliament at a later date. No more details of the planned facilities were announced.
Nearly 60,000 people made the illegal crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands last year, according to the U.N. refugee agency, roughly double the rate recorded in 2017 and 2018.
But only 391 migrants were deported to Turkey last year, in cases where asylum applications were rejected or not considered admissible. The government wants to increase that number to 200 deportations per week before the summer.
Greece already operates three closed facilities in the north of the country with a combined capacity of 880 places and is planning to expand a network of migrant camps throughout the mainland with the capacity of the facilities designed not to exceed 1% of the population of each administrative region.
Many non-government organizations and migrants themselves fear the tougher line being taken by the center-right government could further undermine their asylum process.
Among them is Madhi Fadil, a 25-year-old Moroccan migrant who is homeless in the northern city of Thessaloniki. "We don't have a chance to have anything, not a place to live or a proper way to apply for asylum," Fadil told The Associated Press. "I want to go to Germany where all my relatives are. But I'm trapped here,” he also said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)