MYTILENE, Greece – Greek riot police had to evacuate protesting refugees and migrants on Lesbos after far-right extremists went on a rampage of violence, attacking and screaming through battles that raged through the night on April 22.
The attackers went after the protesters, who were mainly Afghan migrants camped out in the town square in Mytilene on a popular tourist island that has been overrun with the numbers although being kept in detention centers and camps.
The refugees and migrants have grown frustrated with being penned up for up to two years or more during a suspended European Union swap deal with Turkey, which has taken back only a relative handful of those not deemed eligible for asylum.
After the European Union shut its borders, dumping the problem mostly on Greece, the country has been forced to deal with more than 64,000 refugees and migrants, including some 15,000 on islands near Turkey, which has let human traffickers operate.
The refugees, mainly from Syria’s civil war, and economic migrants from other countries went to Turkey which is housing some 2.5 million of them and as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to unleash more on Greek islands unless the EU steps up its deal to give him 6 billion euros ($7.36 billion), visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and faster-track entry for Turkey into the bloc.
Complicating matters, Greece’s highest court has just ruled that new arrivals on the islands can’t be kept in detention centers and camps after receiving asylum and are free to go where they want.
That has added to the anger of those being kept in the centers and camps and find themselves in limbo: unable to go back to their homelands, unable to move on to other EU countries and without asylum, leaving them essentially stateless.
The mayors on islands with the most refugees and migrants, Lesbos, Samos and Chios, have been pleading with the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition for more help and videos have shown inhumane conditions in some of the camps, with human rights groups, activists and volunteers saying the places aren’t fit to live in.
Greek police evacuated refugees and other migrants who had held a protest vigil at Mytilene and relocated them to an overcrowded migrant detention center following a night of attacks by anti-migrant extremists.
In the pre-dawn operation, police forced the protesting migrants into buses and transported them to the Moria camp. The operation, according to local media, lasted less than 10 minutes.
The migrants, who had camped at the town’s Sappho Square, were demanding freedom of movement which, for most, means relocating to other EU countries once they are granted asylum.
It was a night of fierce fighting after Kathimerini said about 200 men chanting far-right slogans typical of the ultra-extremist Golden Dawn – there was no immediate indication they were members – attacked the migrants who had been squatting in the square since April 18 to protest detention in the Moria camp and delays in asylum processing.
The attack started at around 8 p.m. after a gathering of several hundred people in support of two Greek soldiers facing trial in Turkey after accidentally crossing the border, with the gang who attacked the migrants breaking away from that ceremony.
Shouting “burn them alive” and other curses, the attackers threw flares, fireworks, stones broken off the square’s pavement and planters, as well as bottles and other projectiles at the migrants, who formed a defensive circle around the women and children to protect them.
Left-wing activists then tried to protect the migrants and their families and tried to do battle with the attackers and chase them off in the worst scenes of violence among growing troubles on the islands with more arrivals expected in the good weather, those willing to make the treacherous short journey from Turkey in rubber dinghies and small boats.
The ANA-MPA news agency said a social media posting drew more far-right supporters to the scene, adding to the ferocity as the refugees and migrants were attacked again with fireworks and flares, mostly aimed at women and children.
By around 1 a.m., the clashes had spread to the waterfront and Town Hall, as the attackers set fire to garbage bins and attacked police with makeshift projectiles the newspaper and news agency said.
The clashes ended after police got the migrants back to the Moria detention center and set up a heavy guard around them for protection.
Several migrants were injured in the attack and are being treated at the local hospital, according to ANA-MPA, which did not release any additional details.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)