LESBOS - Thousands of residents on Greek islands hosting large refugee camps kicked off a day of protests on Wednesday, demanding the immediate removal of asylum seekers.
Greece last year again became the main entry into Europe for migrants and refugees, many fleeing war or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Syria. Greece was the main gateway into the European Union for more than a million migrants fleeing conflict in 2015-16 and crossing through Turkey, before Ankara and Brussels reached a deal to stem the flow of migrants.
Nevertheless, nearly 75,000 people crossed illegally to EU member Greece from Turkey in 2019, according to the UN refugee agency, an increase of nearly 50% from the previous year. Those figures include more than 59,000 arrivals by sea and more than 14,000 via the land border with Turkey. Already more than 3,000 have arrived so far this year.
Only a fraction of the asylum seekers that reach the Greek islands are allowed passage to the mainland, while the rest spend months in the camps, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
The islanders of Lesbos, Samos and Chios staged a general strike, shutting down shops and public services and rallying in central squares, many waving Greek flags. Some Greek island refugee camps have more than 10 times the number of people they were built for, and international aid officials have strongly criticized the living conditions.
"The situation is really bad. There is no water, no electricity, the weather is really cold. We cannot sleep in the tent to brave the cold," one unnamed migrant told Reuters news agency.
"There should be no more warehouses of suffering souls in the northern Aegean," said Costas Moutzouris, regional governor of the North Aegean islands.
The largest and most infamous camp of Moria on Lesbos island, with a capacity for 2,840 people, hosts more than 19,000 asylum seekers. Samos and Chios each have 7,500 and around 5,000 asylum seekers in camps respectively built to handle 650 and 1,000 persons. Dozens more arrive daily from neighbouring Turkey.
While not joining the strike, Greek police and coast guard associations on the three islands issued statements in support of the protests. The day of protest was organized by regional governors and mayors who plan to travel to Athens on Thursday to present their demands to the government. About 6,000 people joined the protest on Lesbos and another 2,000 demonstrated on Samos.
Packing the waterfront of Lesbos harbour, the protesters chanted: "Our islands are not prisons. Shut down all the camps now."
"Soon we will be a minority on our own island," Vassiliki Ververi, a Lesbos resident, told AFP news agency. "It's Greece and the islands that are paying the price of migration."
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who was appointed to the post last week, said local anger was "justified".
"The burden borne by the islanders is disproportionate," Mitarachi, who represents the island of Chios in parliament, said in a statement.
Asylum seekers "should be shared out across Greece," 72-year-old Lesbos pensioner Efstratios Peppas told AFP news agency.
"And Europe must assume its responsibilities. It too must take migrants," he said. "You can't walk alone outside after dark, people get stabbed."
"We demand the immediate shutdown of Moria," read a banner carried in the Lesbos demonstration. Officials at the Moria camp are struggling to provide basic services to the 19,000 refugees and migrants at a facility built to house fewer than 3,000 people. Most camp dwellers live in tents on a hill outside the fenced-off facility of container homes.
Outbreaks of violence at the camps are frequent. Two young asylum seekers have been fatally stabbed in brawls at the Moria camp this month. An 18-year-old Afghan girl was also seriously injured in a knife attack this week and remains in hospital. Three asylum seekers in Greek custody have committed suicide in recent weeks.
Greece's new conservative government, which has announced tougher asylum laws and hired additional border guards, vows to expel all asylum seekers who are not entitled to protection. It reinstated the migration ministry, six months after scrapping it, and announced plans in November to build larger camps on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, which currently host a total of nearly 42,000 migrants and refugees.
But the new camp plans have been strongly opposed by island officials, who want smaller facilities after hosting thousands of asylum seekers for the past five years.
"What we want is for people to be transferred to the mainland in greater numbers, for the camp to be phased out and closed, and for any new facility to be located far away from populated areas," Yiannis Mastroyiannis, the leader of Moria's municipal council, told protesters at the main square on Lesbos. "The people in this area have suffered enough.”
"They need to leave. It's not that we don't like them. They live in miserable conditions. It's tough for them and for us too," said Zoi Yannaka, who was part of a separate Communist party demonstration on Lesbos.
On Tuesday, 17 human rights organisations warned the Greek government of a rising "climate of discrimination and xenophobia" towards asylum seekers, who they said also face "serious consequences to their well-being and public health".