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)

Greece wants floating fence to keep migrants out

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece wants to install a floating barrier in the Aegean Sea to deter migrants arriving at its islands’ shores through Turkey, government officials said on Thursday.

Greece served as the gateway to the European Union for more than one million Syrian refugees and other migrants in recent years. While an agreement with Turkey sharply reduced the number attempting the voyage since 2016, Greek islands still struggle with overcrowded camps operating far beyond their capacity.

The 2.7 kilometer long (1.68 miles) net-like barrier that Greece wants to buy will be set up in the sea off the island of Lesbos, where the overcrowded Moria camp operates.

It will rise 50 centimeters above sea level and carry light marks that will make it visible at night, a government document inviting vendors to submit offers said, adding that it was “aimed at containing the increasing inflows of migrants”.

“The invitation for floating barriers is in the right direction,” Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai Radio. “We will see what the result, what its effect as a deterrent will be in practice.”

“It will be a natural barrier. If it works like the one in Evros… it can be effective,” he said, referring to a cement and barbed-wire fence Greece set up in 2012 along its northern border with Turkey to stop a rise in migrants crossing there.

Aid groups, which have described the living conditions at migrant camps as appalling, said fences in Europe had not deterred arrivals and that Greece should focus on speeding up the processing of asylum requests instead.

“We see, in recent years, a surge in the number of barriers that are being erected but yet people continue to flee,” Ξ’oris Cheshirkov, spokesman in Greece for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters. “Greece has to have fast procedures to ensure that people have access to asylum quickly when they need it.”

Last year, 59,726 migrants and refugees reached Greece’s shores according to the UN agency UNHCR. Nearly 80% of them arrived on Chios, Samos and Lesbos.

A defense ministry official told Reuters the floating fence would be installed at the north of Lesbos, where migrants attempt to cross over due to the short distance from Turkey.

If the 500,000 euro barrier is effective, more parts may be added and it could reach up to 15 kilometers, the official said.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou, Lefteris Papadimas and Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Peter Graff and Gareth Jones)

Greece moves to ease overcrowding in Lesbos migrant camp

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece said on Tuesday it would move 2,000 asylum-seekers from the island of Lesbos to the mainland by the end of the month as pressure mounted on the government to ease overcrowding.

Human rights groups and local authorities have criticized Greece for the poor conditions at the country’s biggest migrant camp, Moria, currently operating at almost three times its capacity.

About 9,000 migrants and refugees are holed up in the camp, a collection of tents and shipping containers in a former military base, according to the latest government data.

A local governor threatened to shut it down within 30 days unless authorities clean up uncontrollable amounts of waste.

“The situation in Moria really is difficult,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told a briefing. “It really is borderline.”

Some 3,000 people were transferred from Moria to the mainland over the summer and another 700 people were moved last week, Tzanakopoulos said. A further 2,000 would be moved by the end of September, he said.

Europe’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is expected to visit Athens this week for talks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Last week, over a dozen human rights groups urged Greece to take action to render its camps fit for human habitation.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Monday it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in Moria, where it found many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Richard Balmforth)