ATHENS – Facing blistering new rounds of criticism over his government’s handling of an ongoing refugee and migrant crisis, Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras will take selected ministers to visit the overcrowded detention center on the Aegean island of Lebsos for a first-hand look.
The island’s capital, Mytilene, was the scene of a bitter brawl in April when far-right extremists attacked refugees and migrants squatting in the center to protest delays in processing asylum applications at the center, which is housing several thousand people.
Human rights groups had said conditions there were not fit for humans after a secret video taken by the German news agency Deutsche Welle earlier showed people living amid faces and garbage and with frequent tensions and fights and women afraid to use the showers and toilets, fearing sexual attacks.
Tsipras said he was “proud” of those conditions but has shied away from going to the islands near Turkey, including Chios and Samos, housing more than 15,000 refugees and migrants and as another near 50,000 are being kept in camps on the mainland.
Most are hoping for asylum after the European Union closed its borders to them, dumping the problem on Greece and reneging on promises to take in the overload with the bloc’s migration commissioner, Greece’s Dimitris Avramopoulos, refusing to take them to court although he has the power to do so.
The refugees and migrants are in limbo during a suspended European Union swap deal as Turkey has taken back only a relative handful and they can’t move on to other countries n the bloc, and can’t go back.
Critics said the visit planned for May 2-3 was just a public relations stunt to appease the public as officials fear a new spike in arrivals with the warmer weather, and with new worries more will forsake the perilous sea journey from nearby Turkey to sneak in through the land border in the north via the treacherous Evros River, where many have drowned.
Tsipras and his crew will be attending a regional development conference days after the viot and as tensions remain high with the frustration over the delayed asylum applications.
Adding to the woes is a decision by a Greek court that new arrivals on the islands and via the land border aren’t supposed to be detained but are free to move around the country, a ruling ignored by the government which said they will be kept anyway, with no response from the court to force the order to be obeyed.
Those being kept in the camps and centers on the islands are barred from moving to the mainland before their applications are processed, which has taken more than two years in some cases.
“It is unusual for the half the government to be in one place and especially not an island,” Lesbos Mayor, Spyros Galinos, told Kathimerini. “It is an opportunity for them to meet with the people and give them some answers face to face.” He had blasted the government for the violence and tensions in the camp and their requests for more help have been ignored.
Between January and April, however, 4,784 people were transferred from the islands to camps on the mainland and just 112 were returned to Turkey, but the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros got 7,594 new arrivals from Turkey, according to official figures which showed the numbers growing in the centers and camps.
“The system of returns to Turkey is not working, when it should have served as a counterbalance to arrivals,” Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos said.
Critics also said the government hasn’t made good use of EU funds to improve conditions in the centers, including for increasing the sewerage system capacity with pipes meant to serve 800 people being used by 6,500.
“Dirty water has been leaking out of Moria left and right for months,” Galinos told the paper. “It is a ticking public health bomb and it us further angering the local community, which is already exhausted by the situation.”
According to official figures the islands are currently hosting about 15,700 migrants and refugees in facilities built for a maximum of 7,000.
Asylum service workers said they are toiling in terrible conditions, working long hours without enough staff and that their contracts have already expired without their being told whether they will be kept on or paid, with salaries three months overdue because of the government’s delay in releasing the monies.
“We have been in this crisis for three years. For three years we have been in an emergency situation. We cannot pretend this is normal and wait for the state to act according to its ‘normal’ pace,” said Galinos.