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Over Objections, EU Plans Funding for Greek Islands Refugee Camps

Αssociated Press

A Greek flag on a makeshift tent outside the perimeter of the overcrowded refugee camp at the port of Vathy on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Despite resistance from weary residents and objections from activists, the European Union is set to put 250 million euros ($295.61 million) to build new refugee and migrants camps on Greek islands in the Aegean.

Those are near the coast of Turkey which has continued to violate an essentially-suspended 201 swap deal with the EU and let human traffickers keep sending asylum seekers to Greece, mostly to five Eastern Aegean islands.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, is expected to visit Lesbos and Samos on March 29 with Greek Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi, said Al Jazeera in a report on the move.

Johansson has said the funds for the camps, or Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs), should be sufficient for “acceptable standards”, to be delivered “on a reasonable timetable.”

Human rights groups have long protested conditions in detention centers and camps on the islands, including a new tent city built on Lesbos, the favored destination for the refugees and migrants.

It was put together hastily after several occupants of the former Moria camp burned it down in protest against COVID-19 restrictions, for which they were arrested, the BBC having called the facility “the worst in the world” for refugees and migrants.

The new structures to be built after island officials had also demanded the refugees and migrants be moved to mainland facilities will be “humane, and allow for areas for families and vulnerable people,” Johansson wrote in a commission blog.

“They will allow children to get schooling – essential so that precious years are not wasted,” she said, although Greek officials said the camps will be “closed and controlled,” the contradiction not explained.

Matthias Mertens, a co-founder of the Europe Must Act rights group that focuses on migration, told Al Jazeera he was concerned about people’s personal freedoms.

“The new MPRICs will offer prison-like living conditions to asylum seekers in remote locations outside the urban fabric,” he said.

“They will curtail the agency of refugees, while also diminishing the ability of NGOs to provide essential services, both are vital to guarantee humane and dignified living conditions,” he said.

But he acknowledged they are essentially being forced on the residents of the islands who’ve grown tired of them and hosting refugees and migrants for almost five years since they began arriving from Turkey where they had gone fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan.

“There is also no democratic mandate for the construction of these new camps nor are they perceived as European solidarity in action by the local islanders. On the contrary, resistance against the MPRICs is fierce and widespread,” he said.

The opposition has gone beyond words. 

Locals living on the islands have also voiced their opposition, the news site reported, including that after building materials were brought in for the new sites, residents protested. Some in Lesbos and Chios then clashed with riot police sent in from Athens to disperse them.

Now the Regional Governor for the North Aegean, Kostas Moutzouris, told local news that he still believed that there should be no “permanent” structure on the island but that continued dialogue was important, setting aside objections.

Marta Welander, head of Refugee Rights Europe, told Al Jazeera that the EU-funded camps should be accompanied by a “robust, independent and transparent monitoring mechanism which can help ensure human rights compliance of all operations in the centers.

“Without a meaningful investment in – and commitment to – such a monitoring mechanism, these centers risk becoming dangerous vanishing points where rights violations perpetrated against vulnerable people on the move are allowed to unfold unhindered,” Welander said.

There are reportedly still some 13,300 people living in island camps although it had been higher than 34,000 at one point and more are still coming although in lesser numbers since the swap deal and during the pandemic.

Epaminondas Farmakis from Human Rights 360 told Al Jazeera he was not convinced that money would lead to better camps. “Moria, Lesbos has been the moral failure of Europe,” he said.

“The conditions are atrocious for many years now and more than 3 billion euros ($3.55 billion) are directed from the EU to Greece to tackle this process. These funds are distributed with no transparency and no procurement policies so the answer would not be to throw more EU taxpayer funding to waste,” he said.