ATHENS – Plans by the New Democracy government to seize lands on islands to build detention centers aimed at sorting out refugees and migrants ineligible for asylum has seen fierce opposition become violent, with residents trying to stop it.
There are some 42,000 refugees and migrants on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros being held in facilities far over capacity and in conditions that human rights groups said are inhumane, calling for the government to improve them while condemning the plans.
There had been frequent tension and violence in the camps between ethnic groups and with riot police called in trying to put down disturbances but it escalated when protesting residents jumped into the battle that saw clashes and tear gas being fired.
The incidents took place on Lesbos, home to the notorious Moria detention camp that the BBC called “the worst in the world,” and where some 18,000 people are being held in a facility housed for about 3,000, and hundreds more sleeping outside in tents.
Police also used stun grenades to disperse crowds gathered at sites designated for the facilities and on Chios, one mayor and a priest were rushed to hospital after collapsing as a result of the toxic fumes.
Witnesses said about 500 people attempted to block the unloading of heavy machinery overnight to break ground at the construction site on Lesbos, said Reuters.
Local unions backed the protesters with strikes shutting down services as island officials have grown frustrated over broken promises by the government to do more and transfer more refugees and migrants to the mainland, where there’s already some 50,000.
“Nobody should go to work, nobody should go to school, no shop should open,” was their battle cry, The Guardian reported in a feature on the growing tension that has become a major dilemma for the government.
“We call on all workers, the people of Lesbos, bodies and associations to stand against government plans to turn our island, and other Aegean islands, into a vast prison of human souls,” the report said.
Caught up in the clashes, Yiannis Bournous, an MP with the major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA said there was “an unprovoked and violent attack of riot police against protesting citizens,” saying it was an assault on democracy, without mentioning New Democracy blamed the leftists for an open-door policy during their 4 ½-year reign and for doing almost nothing to improve the camps either.
The assault on islanders by police led Konstantinos Moutzouris, Governor of the North Aegean region to tell the paper that, “Not even the junta did such things,” said referring to the military dictatorship from 1967-74.
The refugees and migrants – from Afghanistan and war-torn Syria, as well as economic migrants from places such as sub-Saharan Africa, are seeking asylum but have to wait up to two years or more for applications to be processed, which the government said it would accelerate, along with deportations to Turkey and an unknown fate for those rejected.
They are stuck on Greek islands with the EU closing its borders to them, other countries reneging on promises to help take some of the overload and the last two migration chiefs for the bloc – both from New Democracy – reluctant to use courts to aid Greece.
With human rights groups, activists, NGO’s and volunteers repeatedly trying to shame the government for failing to provide better accommodations and deal with 5,463 unaccompanied minors, the pressure is ratcheting up.
Island officials and residents don’t believe government claims that new facilities would be temporary and used to sort out those ineligible for asylum, for which most have been rejected and now losing the right to appeal.
The government said it will forge ahead in the face of growing opposition at the same time it wants to put a floating sea wall off Lesbos in a desperate bid to deter refugees and migrants, who have already had to deal with war and bombings.
Describing the current camps as “public health bombs,” with fear of the coronavirus causing more consternation, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the new facilities are in the public interest and urged support for them.
“It is clearly evident that matters such as the coronavirus can be dealt with swiftly and effectively in a closed facility and not an anarchic, open facility which is a health time bomb,” Petsas said, reported Reuters, although there aren’t any cases reported in Greece.
“We are asking local residents to understand that these closed facilities will benefit the country and their communities,” he told Open TV. “We will build these closed centers but also close the existing open ones. That is the government’s promise.”
International aid groups decried the situation.
“It has reached an explosive point for both locals who have shown remarkable solidarity towards refugees and asylum seekers living in the conditions that they live,”Nikolas Panagiotopoulos, Area Manager of the International Rescue Committee.
“There is an urgent need for de-escalation. We firmly believe that more dialogue is needed between local government and central government for a sustainable solution,” he said.
“It is clear the north-east Aegean islands cannot shoulder this responsibility. The EU needs to step up in solidarity because Greece cannot cope on its own,” he also added.