Demonstrators gathered Thursday for a fourth consecutive day on the eastern Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to protest government plans to build new migrant detention centers.
The protest comes amid heightened tensions on the islands that have felt the full impact of migrant flows from war-torn Syria in particular. On occasion, the tensions between the island residents and police have turned violent.
Shops and services were shut on Lesbos as workers extended an initial 24-hour strike into a second day as part of the protests. The mayors of Lesbos, Chios and the nearby island of Samos were to meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens to discuss the situation.
Wednesday’s protests descended into violence, with hundreds of demonstrators attacking police guarding the building sites of future migrant detention camps on Chios and Lesbos. A crowd also laid siege for hours to a Lesbos army camp where riot squads were staying.
Officials have said 43 police officers were injured in violence in Lesbos, and another nine in Chios, where a mob burst into a hotel being used by riot police and beat officers resting in their rooms.
The government has said it will pull out many of the riot police deployed to the islands earlier this week.
Greece’s eastern Aegean Sea islands have been the main entry point into the European Union for tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, new arrivals must stay on the islands pending deportation back to Turkey until their asylum applications are processed.
Long delays in the asylum process and increased migrant flows have led to severe overcrowding in the island camps, which are several times over capacity.
Island residents have demanded that all migrants be moved to the mainland, and vehemently object to new camps being built in their areas. A rally will be held at Sappho Square in Mytilene against "state violence and repression".
Migration Min Mitarachi: The first phase of works on Lesvos and Chios completed
"The first phase of the works on Chios and Lesvos is completed," said Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi in a TV interview on Thursday, referring to plans for the construction of closed migrant accommodation centres on the islands.
Regarding the recent violent clashes between islanders and riot police, the minister said that "people have been stirred up by false information and fake figures, with the result that we are now seeing the extremes joining forces on the islands, the extreme behaviour of the far Left and the far right."
"I spent the whole day in the operations room and the orders of both the political leadership and the chief of police was that there should be zero contact and that no citizen should be affected. One of the reasons why such a large contingent of police was sent to the islands was to achieve a deterrent effect so there would be no incidents," he said.
"Unfortunately, some individuals are stirring people up...we saw extreme incidents that do us no credit as a country," he added.
Mitarachi reiterated that "the government is always at the negotiations table," adding that "viable counter-proposals which can guarantee the islanders' security have not been put forward. We have heard many different views and alternatives and all of them have been examined. The areas finally proposed (for the construction of closed facilities) are the safest, far from urban areas and will cause minimal to no disturbance," he added.
Referring to the migrant accommodation facilities on mainland Greece, the minister said that the government's plan foresees the creation of 20,000 additional centres in 2020 "and to free 10,000 beds currently occupied by persons who no longer have the right to live in the hosting structures."
He acknowledged that, due to the crisis, the government will be forced to also transfer people from the islands without asylum but noted that "we must do this in a way that does not increase migrant flows."