Greek islanders opposed to new migrant center clash with police

ATHENS (Reuters) – Riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing protesters angry over the creation of a new detention center for migrants, the latest bout of unrest over the matter.

The Athens government infuriated residents of five Aegean islands – all straddling a key route to Europe used by thousands of migrants – by announcing two weeks ago that it would expedite the construction of secured detention centers to replace open-access, severely overcrowded camps.

Local residents say they are concerned such an arrangement could become permanent.

In a second straight day of disturbances on Wednesday, local crowds tried to approach a site earmarked for a new migrant center, triggering clashes with helmeted police on a road winding through a hilly forest.

“More than 1,000 people protesting at the new facility… threw stones at police, smashing their helmets. Police were forced to use chemicals,” a police spokesman said, using a euphemism for tear gas.

At least 10 protesters and dozens of police officers were injured during the clashes before they subsided early in the evening, another police official said.

More police were deployed this week to the five affected islands to deal with the protesters. On the island of Chios on Wednesday, local people stormed into a hotel where newly arrived police officers were staying, precipitating scuffles.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of people gathered in the town of Mytilene on Lesbos as part of a general strike to protest at government plans to create the new closed migrant facility.

On Tuesday, locals used vehicles and rubbish trucks to try to block police reinforcements and heavy machinery in a port.

The Athens government says the closed centers will offer greater security and safety to both asylum seekers and local residents, and plans to build them on the islands of Samos, Kos, Leros and Chios in addition to Lesbos.

Locals say the islands are carrying a disproportionate burden from a migrant crisis that began in 2015 when more than one million people fled violence in the Middle East and beyond via Turkey, reaching Greece and then moving on to wealthier central and northern Europe, their preferred destinations.

Border closures imposed since then along the migrant corridor through the Balkans and central Europe north of Greece have left many thousands of later arrivals marooned on Greek islands near Turkey.

(Reporting by Costas Baltas and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greece speeds up creation of migrant holding centers to ease tension

By Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece plans to accelerate the creation of detention centers on its outlying islands in the Aegean Sea after a backlash against overcrowded camps by some migrants and nearby residents.

Authorities said on Monday they would proceed with the purchase of land on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, and press ahead with plans to create holding facilities on state-owned land on Kos and Leros.

Thousands of migrants are waiting on the islands for their asylum applications to be processed, most of them in overcrowded camps known as reception centers.

Migrants on Lesbos protested last week against poor living conditions and residents of the island took to the streets demanding the reception facilities close.

“The government has decided to close today’s anarchic facilities and create controlled, closed facilities,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece in 2015 and 2016 before a deal brokered by the European Union limited the flow. There has been a resurgence in arrivals since around September 2019.

Last year, more than 74,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, according to the United Nations refugees agency UNHCR. Most of them arrived on Lesbos, Chios and Samos after crossing from Turkey and about 40,000 are now in effect trapped on the islands.

AID GROUPS SAY ACTION NEEDED

Aid groups have described living conditions in some of the island camps as appalling.

“We need 20,000 people to be transferred from the islands to the mainland in the next weeks and months to come,” Philippe Leclerc, UNCHR’s head in Greece, told journalists after a meeting with Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi.

Greece’s conservative New Democracy government, elected last July, has taken a tougher stance toward migration than Syriza, the leftist party that led the previous government.

The government has introduced new regulations which it says will simplify the asylum process and launched a tender for a floating fence in the Aegean which it hopes will deter migrants arriving from Turkey on rafts.

The new detention centers would house new arrivals until their asylum processes were underway, as well as others showing “delinquent behavior” or not entitled to asylum, Petsas said.

Entering and leaving the facilities would be strictly regulated and they would be closed at night, he added.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Second Greek migrant camp in flames as arrivals continue to rise

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A fire in a severely overcrowded migrant camp in Greece forced hundreds of people into the streets, compounding their plight with more refugees arriving on Greek islands daily in what an aid group called a worsening “nightmare”.

Greece sent more police to the island of Samos on Tuesday after the fire, which occurred two weeks after a deadly blaze at a troubled camp on nearby Lesbos triggered protests there.

The Samos fire flared outside the camp on Monday night, firefighters said, before spreading inside. Earlier, three Syrians had been taken to hospital with stab wounds suffered in a fight with a group of Afghans, police said.

Several tents and housing containers were destroyed and 600 people were given shelter by aid groups, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity said. It estimates that half of the camp’s residents are women and children.

“This nightmare must end!” MSF wrote on Twitter. “Children and other vulnerable people must be evacuated from the Greek islands to safe accommodation.”

Greece is struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee and migrant flows across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since a 2015 crisis when more than a million streamed into Europe, many of them entering the continent via Greece.

A regional governor, Costas Moutzouris, described the current situation on Greece’s frontline islands as “tragic” and called on the government to act.

More than half of refugees and migrants reaching European Union territory this year from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have been to Greece, according to United Nations data.

Athens has announced a stricter migration policy to deal with the crisis, including plans to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year. But efforts to ease overcrowding have borne little fruit as arrivals have surged to record levels.

The Samos camp, initially built for about 650 people, is unraveling under the weight of more than 5,700 asylum-seekers, according to the latest government data.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the highest level in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, addressing the Greek parliament on Tuesday, said Greece needed to do more to process its backlog of asylum claims.

He cautioned that Greece might not be able to deal with the potential refugee fallout from a military offensive launched by Turkey against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria last week.

“The pressure currently being placed on populations on the Turkey-Syria border may force several thousand Syrians, or others living in the region, to want to cross the border into Turkey. And then what happens?” Avramopoulos said.

“That would be catastrophic for Greece, and for Europe.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greece moves hundreds of asylum-seekers from crowded island camp

Children from Afghanistan wait to board a catamaran that will transfer them to the mainland, in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Alkis Konstantinidis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Greece began moving hundreds of asylum-seekers on Monday from a camp on the island of Lesbos that holds around four times the number of people it was built for.

Over 11,000 refugees and migrants, most of whom have fled war or poverty in the Middle East, Asia or Africa, are holed up at Moria in Europe’s biggest migrant camp.

Some 635 people, mostly families, boarded a passenger ship on Monday for facilities in northern Greece, and more were due to leave later in the day.

Moving asylum-seekers from island camps to the mainland is part of government measures announced on Aug. 31 to deal with the rising numbers. All of Greece’s five formal island camps are over capacity.

Moria, which is a disused military base, has been criticized by humanitarian organizations for its squalid living conditions.

It currently holds the highest number of people in three years and violence is not uncommon. An Afghan boy was killed in a fight there last month and women have told aid groups they often feel unsafe.

Greece is Europe’s main gateway for Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum-seekers, and accounts for more than half of the 56,000 migrants who have landed on the Mediterranean’s northern shore this year.

The numbers are small compared to the nearly 1 million people who fled to northern Europe through Greece in 2015, as a deal between the EU and Ankara in March 2016 all but cut off the flow. But they have still piled pressure on Greek facilities.

About 7,000 people landed on Greece’s shores last month, the highest number since the deal was signed. Last Thursday alone, more than a dozen boats arrived with around 600 migrants, prompting the government’s Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense to hold an emergency session.

To curb the influx, Greece also plans to tighten its border controls and speed up deportations of rejected asylum-seekers.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

End ‘containment’ of asylum-seekers on islands, aid groups tell Greek PM

: Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016.

ATHENS (Reuters) – Over a dozen human rights groups and aid organizations wrote to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday urging him to end the “containment” of asylum seekers in island camps.

More than 13,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis fleeing years of war, are living in five camps on Greek islands close to Turkey, government figures show. Four of those camps are holding two to three times as many people as they were designed for.

Those who arrive on Greek islands following a European deal with Turkey last year to stem the flow are forbidden from traveling to mainland until their asylum applications are processed, and those who do not qualify are deported.

Applications have piled up and rulings can take weeks. A recent sharp rise in arrivals has piled additional misery on overcrowded facilities.

The 19 signatories, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam, said the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros had been “transformed into places of indefinite confinement.”

“We urge you to put an end to the ongoing ‘containment policy’ of trapping asylum seekers on the islands … and to immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and meet their protection needs,” they wrote.

They described conditions as “abysmal” and said many asylum-seekers lacked access to adequate and timely procedures and protection. Some have been on the islands for 19 months.

“Reception conditions are deteriorating, and gaps in basic services, especially medical, are increasing,” they wrote.

Thousands of people, including young children, are crammed into tents with only a cloth separating one family from another, the groups said, and conditions were particularly harsh for pregnant women.

Nearly 23,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, a fraction compared to the nearly 1 million who arrived in 2015, but state-run camps are struggling to cope with the numbers.

As an emergency measure, the government has said it plans to move about 2,000 people from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland.

In recent weeks, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) its research showed a mental health emergency was unfolding in migrant camps on the islands, fueled by poor living conditions, neglect and violence.

The United Nations refugee agency called on Greece to speed up preparations at those camps, saying they were ill-prepared for winter.

 

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

Aegean quake shakes buildings in Greece and Turkey, one dead

A damaged house is seen at the village of Vrissa on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, after a strong earthquake shook the eastern Aegean

ISTANBUL/ATHENS (Reuters) – A powerful 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the western coast of Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos on Monday, killing one woman and rattling buildings from the Aegean Turkish province of Izmir to the Greek capital Athens.

The epicenter of the quake was about 84 km (52 miles) northwest of the Turkish coastal city of Izmir and 15 km south of Lesbos, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said on its website. The National Observatory of Athens put it slightly lower at 6.1.

Extensive damage was reported at a village on Lesbos, which was at the forefront of a migration crisis two years ago when hundreds of thousands of war refugees landed there seeking a gateway into Europe.

TV footage showed collapsed buildings and debris blocking narrow streets at Vrisa, a community of around 600 people to the south of the island.

“Tens of buildings have collapsed and roads are blocked off,” said Marios Apostolides, the divisional commander of the fire brigade.

Rescue team members search for victims at a collapsed building in the village of Vrissa on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, after a strong earthquake shook the eastern Aegean,

Rescue team members search for victims at a collapsed building in the village of Vrissa on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, after a strong earthquake shook the eastern Aegean, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A woman, believed to be about 60, was crushed by the roof of her home and died, the island’s mayor said. Local officials said at least 10 people were injured.

The quake was felt as far away as the Greek capital of Athens, some 367 km (228 miles) southwest of the island.

Major geological fault lines cross the region and small earthquakes are common, though anything higher than 5.5 is rare. Anything exceeding that is capable of causing extensive damage.

“The trembling was really bad. Everything in my clinic started shaking wildly, we all ran outside with the patients,” said Didem Eris, a 50-year-old dentist in Izmir’s Karsiyaka district. “We are very used to earthquakes as people of Izmir but this one was different. I thought to myself that this time we were going to die.”

Social media users who said they were in western Turkey reported a strong and sustained tremor.

“We will be seeing the aftershocks of this in the coming hours, days and weeks,” said Haluk Ozener, head of Turkey’s Kandilli Observatory, adding that the aftershocks could have magnitudes of up to 5.5.

More than 600 people died in October 2011 in Turkey’s eastern province of Van after a quake of 7.2 magnitude and powerful aftershocks. In 1999, two massive earthquakes killed about 20,000 people in the densely populated northwest of the country.

(Reporting by Turkey and Athens newsrooms; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)