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Dutch Refugees Activist Plane Barred from Landing on Lesbos

An airplane chartered by Dutch activists who wanted to retrieve refugees and islands from Lesbos and bring them to The Netherlands was prevented from landing on the island, ending their mission abruptly.

The plane was denied permission to land on the island on Oct. 5 and diverted to Athens International Airport but it wasn't said if any of those aboard, including the pilots, were to be charged.

The airplane, with a capacity of 189 passengers, took off from Rotterdam as part of a scheme by the activists to return with refugees and migrants and pressure their country's government to do more to help Greece, which is holding some 100,000 of them, almost all seeking asylum.

The Greek Migration Ministry said in a statement that “a state cooperates with other states within a specific framework” and that “the bypassing of the institutionalized procedures can only be to the detriment of the refugees.” 

A ministry official said that the rules must be followed, said Kathimerini. “There must be respect for the people who are seeking protection in Europe,” the official was quoted as saying. 

The first Greek-Dutch long-term shelter for unaccompanied minors on the Greek mainland was put into operation in late September of 2019 to help aid the plight of the refugees and migrants, including some 26,000 on five Greek islands.

Lesbos is holding about 12,500, who were burned out of the notorious Moria detention camp when it was torched in a protest against a quarantine aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Almost all have been transferred to a rapidly-assembled tent city where they will spend the winter while waiting for asylum applications to be processed, which can take two years or more.

But even then the misery doesn't end as those granted sanctuary must move from the camps and try to find their own shelters and jobs during a crushing pandemic that is crunching the economy, leaving many of them homeless.

Even before they took off, the activists admitted they would fail because even if they were allowed to land on Lesbos and get refugees and migrants aboard – with no reports any would be tested for the Coronavirus – that the Dutch government wouldn't let them land on return.

“We are trying to increase the pressure while realizing that it would be a bizarre miracle if it happens," said Rikko Voorberg of the group Let's Bring Them Here.

The group opened a crowdfunding action that quickly raised enough money to charter a passenger aircraft with nearly 200 seats reserved for migrants, a move aimed at raising awareness of the plight of migrants stuck on Lesbos and elsewhere with limited prospects for relocation to other European countries.

In an open letter published on the group's website in English, Farsi and Arabic, organizers warn that they are dependent on gaining official permission to airlift migrants off the island.

“We have to try, even if it fails," the letter said. The refugees and migrants had gone to Turkey, fleeing war, strife and economic misery in their homelands and were were take to Lesbos and four other islands by human traffickers Turkey lets operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

In late September, 139 vulnerable asylum-seekers who had been living in overcrowded Greek island camps were taken on an officially sanctioned flight to Germany, which agreed to accept some although only a handful of EU countries will also after the bloc closed its borders to them.

Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said it was the first resettlement flight after Moria camp burned.

The attempted airlift was not the first time Voorberg and his supporters have attempted to relocate migrants. Late in 2018, the group drove a city bus and 35 cars to Athens in an attempt to bring people back to the Netherlands but returned without any.

After the Moria fire, the Dutch government offered to take in 100 people from the camp, but only unaccompanied minors and families with young children.

The Dutch Minister responsible for migration and asylum, Ankie Broekers-Knol, on Thursday took a virtual tour around a shelter for 16 unaccompanied girls and young mothers on the Greek mainland funded by Greece and the Netherlands. 

It was the first of three being established by the two countries to improve accommodation for unaccompanied young asylum seekers in Greece.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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