Greece: Island mayors in Athens to protest migrant situation

Greece: Island mayors in Athens to protest migrant situation
Protesters take part in a rally in the port of Mytilene, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Local residents and business owners have launched a day of protest on the Greek islands hardest hit by migration, demanding the Greek government ease severe overcrowding at refugee camps. (AP Photo/Aggelos Barai)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s Migration and Asylum Minister said Thursday that the “anxiety and indignation” of residents of islands at the forefront of a migration crisis are justified, and vowed measures to tackle the increased number of arrivals.

Residents and business owners on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos have held two days of protests and went on strike to demand the government tackle the severe overcrowding of migrant camps, which are all grossly over capacity. Local mayors and the regional governor traveled to Athens to meet with Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis to press their demands.

“We consider citizens’ anxiety and indignation justified,” Mitarakis said after the meeting at the prime minister’s office. “Our country is indeed dealing with a migration crisis and increased migration flows in 2019.” The minister said the increased number of people in the camps was in turn putting pressure on local communities.

Greece’s six-month-old government has vowed to ease overcrowding on the islands, but, so far, has not managed to do so. It has also said it will speed up deportations and introduce closed pre-departure camps, as opposed to the current camps where residents are free to come and go, although they cannot leave the islands.

Greece has been the first point of entry into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with the vast majority arriving on eastern Aegean Sea islands from the nearby Turkish coast. But under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, new arrivals must stay on the islands pending deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

Long delays in the asylum process have led to thousands being stranded on the islands, with camps at between six and 12 times over their capacity. Rights groups have long criticized living conditions in the camps, where fights and violence have become common.

Mitarakis said the government and the island’s local officials agreed on current priorities, which are to reduce the entry of more people, ease overcrowding in the island camps, speed up returns to Turkey, improve the asylum process and improve healthcare facilities on the islands.

“We agree on the need for there to be closed pre-departure facilities, we disagree on the size and the method of operation,” Mitarakis said.

As part of confidence-building measures between the government and island authorities, the minister said he would be having meetings with the mayors and regional governor every two weeks.