Greece’s Aegean islands have been gripped by a second day of clashes between riot police and local communities protesting against government plans to create migrant detention camps.
Against the backdrop of a paralysing general strike, residents fought running battles with heavily armed officers as opposition mounted over a scheme that many fear will bring many more arrivals to the eastern islands from Turkey.
“Our great fear when passions are so high is that blood will be spilt,” said Efstratios Tzimis, the deputy mayor of Mytilene, Lesbos’s main town. “It’s a very bad turn of events when Greeks turn against Greeks.”
On Lesbos, locals engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police who attempted to disperse demonstrators gathered at the hilltop site earmarked for the new facility with tear gas and stun grenades.
On Chios, irate locals stormed a hotel used by a police unit dispatched from Athens, injuring at least eight officers. They then made off with their clothes.
A day earlier, squads of riot police were sent to the islands with bulldozers and other heavy machinery to begin construction of installations that have infuriated communities who had previously exhibited extraordinary compassion towards refugees.
Despite the growing pandemonium, the centre-right government of the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, vowed to press ahead with the plan.
Officials are acutely aware of the escalating violence in Syria, where rights groups are warning of renewed humanitarian crisis in Idlib, the rebel-held province being targeted by Russian-backed regime forces. They fear it is only a matter of time before Greece faces an even greater influx of asylum seekers from Turkey.
In recent months there have been more arrivals than at any other time since early 2016, the height of the conflict, when nearly a million displaced Syrians entered Europe via the Aegean islands.
Close to 43,000 men, women and children are registered on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos in camps originally designed to accommodate 5,400. No other corner of the continent is such a busy entry point for illegal migration into the EU.
“It is critical that these centres happen,” said Manos Logothetis, the general secretary of the Greek ministry of migration and asylum. “It is an honour for no state to have such centres,” he told state-run TV, referring to Moria, the notorious camp in Lesbos, and other vastly overcrowded open-air facilities that the government intends to replace with more streamlined, if restrictive, detention centres.
Once built, asylum seekers will be kept under lock and key at night in an attempt to bring order to an increasingly chaotic situation across the isles.
On Tuesday a government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, cited the coronavirus and the public health risk the camps would pose in the event of an outbreak as another reason for authorities wanting to accelerate construction plans. Greece, which had previously been spared the disease, reported its first confirmed case on Wednesday.
But after years of being on the frontline of the crisis, island communities say they have had enough. “Personally, I don’t disagree with the government, or think its intentions are bad, but it has handled this very badly,” said Tzimis, who is a member of the ruling New Democracy party.
“We understand that as islands on the route between Asia and Europe what is happening is partly an accident of geography but there is also a lot of distrust between us and government now,” he lamented.
“They promised to decongest our isles but instead have simply delayed. And now, when they should be persuading us on the merits of these new camps by dispatching high-level officials, they send in riot police and resort to repression.”
Local island authorities want asylum seekers to be moved to the mainland and then dispersed across Europe, despite other EU countries declaring their borders sealed.
But the country’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, said recently he believed transfers to the mainland, before asylum requests were completed, would only serve to act as “a pull factor” both for those making the journey and the traffickers ferrying them across the sea from Turkey.
“If their request is rejected there is no way Turkey will accept them back,” he told the Guardian, referring to the March 2016 accord reached between the EU and Ankara that requires migrants and refugees to remain on the islands until their applications are processed by an asylum system both understaffed and overstretched. “The containment policy is a huge problem for us and the islands.”
On Wednesday, Mitarachi claimed the new centres would dramatically reduce the number of refugees and migrants on the outposts, insisting that each camp will hold 5,000 people. “We are creating 20,000 places of hospitality on the islands when today there are over 42,000,” he told SKAI radio. “I would be irresponsible if I allowed the islands to remain undefended in the face of migration flows. We ask residents to trust us.”