THESSALONIKI – Greek authorities have begun transporting about 1,500 asylum-seekers from the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos to the mainland, as part of government efforts to tackle overcrowding in refugee camps and a recent spike in the number of people arriving from the nearby Turkish coast.
A ship carrying 635 people set sail from Lesbos Monday morning for the northern port city of Thessaloniki. From there, authorities said the asylum seekers would be transported to a camp in Nea Kavala in northern Greece. A second ship carrying around 900 people was to leave Lesbos for Thessaloniki on Monday afternoon.
The transfer was part of decisions made during a national security meeting Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened Saturday, after nearly 600 people arrived on Lesbos in the space of an hour on Thursday.
A big jump in the number of refugees and migrants sent to Greek islands by Turkey, where they had first gone fleeing war and strife in the Middle East and other countries, has the new New Democracy government scrambling to deal with it.
A flurry of meetings of top officials led to plans to move at least 1500 of the overload of more than 22,700 people in detention centers and island camps to the mainland, which the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA said it couldn't do because it would violate a swap deal between Turkey and the European Union that has essentially been suspended anyway.
Before the spike in numbers, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his government would accelerate deportations back to Turkey of those deemed ineligible for asylum, which almost all ar seeking after the European Union closed its borders to them, giving them no other choice.
There will also be stepped-up patrols in the Aegean to go after human traffickers sending refugees and migrants on rickety boats and rubber dinghies to the Greek islands nearby, with many drowning on the way when their craft sank or overturned.
A statement – there was no news conference or meeting with reporters – after the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense met under Mitsotakis' leadership said the priority would be to relieve the islands and to restrict further arrivals of irregular migrants "through a better protection of sea borders,” said Kathimerini.
There was no explanation how that would be done with the Greek Coast Guard and the EU's border patrol agency Frontex already present there and unable to stop the growing numbers coming to the islands.
Another part of the plan is to not allow appeals of rejected asylum applications from frustrated refugees and migrants, some sitting in the camps for two years or more and with frequent violence between ethnic groups and clashes with riot police in the facilities that human rights groups said aren't fit for humans.
Greece blamed Turkey and, noting the EU swap deal, said that, "within this framework Turkey must also dutifully assume the responsibilities that correspond to it,” adding that police checks will be stepped up to find unlawful migrants and those who were rejected for asylum but still hiding in Greece to avoid being sent back to Turkey and an unknown fate.
The top government committee said police checks will be intensified in order to locate third country nationals who illegally entered Greece and whose asylum requests have been rejected, but who have subsequently fled migrant shelters in order to avoid deportation.
The Mitsotakis government also promised to funnel another 50 million euros into surveillance systems used by the coast guard and Greek military for the specific sea regions, as well as to upgrade cooperation with Frontex.
The Greek government on Sunday announced that up to 1,500 third country nationals - asylum seekers and would-be migrants - will be transported from the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos (Mytilene) in the coming days, as a spike in the number of illegal arrivals from the opposite Turkish coast was reported over the past week.
Another 220 people landed on the island on Sunday morning, with Greek and European authorities considering that official Turkey has again turned a "blind eye" to people smuggling networks operating on its territory, viewed as a form of diplomatic pressure exerted by the Erdogan administration on the EU.
Meanwhile, amid the resurgent migrant/refugee crisis in the Aegean, the Mitsotakis government also sharply reacted to criticism by now main opposition SYRIZA party and a handful of emergency measures announced by the former on Saturday.
The relevant public order ministry, which succeeded a migration ministry set up by the former leftist government, issued a statement charging that the former leftist government under Alexis Tsipras had essentially turned Greece into a "hotspot" for migrants and migrant smugglers from 2015 and onwards.
The ministry's leadership also deployed the abhorrent conditions, as it said, that characterized many of the illegal migrant/refugee shelters set up under SYRIZA's watch.
Moreover, the press statement referred to an unknown number of third country nationals that entered EU member-state Greece and were still residing in the country, as well as unguarded borders, both on land and sea, "with the result being at risk people turned into prey by criminal gangs."
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)