ATHENS – After shutting down its borders and warning refugees and migrants to stay away, Greece’s New Democracy government will move 450 who managed to reach the island of Lesbos to the mainland under a new get-tough policy they’re not welcome anymore.
The island is already holding nearly 20,000, most in the vastly overcrowded and notorious Moria camp that human rights groups said isn’t fit for humans, and with about another 2,000 spilling over outside, sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters.
Island officials and residents were screaming for those already in the camp to be moved off as well with the government planning to transfer 20,000 of some 42,000 on five islands near the coast of Turkey.
They had come to the islands from Turkey, where they had first gone fleeing war and strife in their homeland as well as economic migrants from other countries, virtually all seeking asylum after the European Union closed its borders to them.
Greece has been trying to deal with about 100,000, including on camps and centers on the mainland but abruptly shut down its northern land border on Feb. 28 after Turkey sent about 10,000 there and urged them to cross.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke the terms of a 2016 swap deal with the EU by sending them there after the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an area of northern Syria they had invaded.
That led him to fear more Syrians would flee their country’s civil war and come to Turkey, which is holding about 3.3 million of them and as he said he would no longer abide by the deal and opened his side of the border.
Turkey began pulling them back after a two-week standoff with Greek forces who stood firm with tear gas being fired across the border and riot police and army units having Molotov Cocktails tossed at them before being repelled by giant fans and water cannons.
Greece’s government also said any migrants or refugees who crossed after March 1 would be deported to the countries of their origin and be ineligible to apply for sanctuary, joining the rest of the EU in closing its border.
A ship with the migrants landed at a port near Athens and the migrants will be transferred to a facility north of the capital pending deportation, an official at the Ministry of Migration policy told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Greece has toughened its stance, suspending all asylum applications for a month and jailing migrants, and refugees, who tried to cross the land border from Turkey.
Although the migrants had been taken to the ship several days earlier, the whole operation had been shrouded in secrecy, with officials refusing to comment on the ship’s destination even after it left Lesbos early March 14, the operation still going on as of March 15.