On the 25th of February Protests and riots broke out on the Greek Islands of Lesbos and Cios against the construction of a detention centre for refugees by the Greek government. Residents are opposing the government plans as they believe the island cannot sustain an inflow of more people, instead, they are imploring them to build the centre on the mainland.
Riot police have fired tear gas at the protesters and have been accused of using violent tactics to quell the blockage of unloading heavy machinery onto the island. Reports have indicated that some 500 residents had taken part in the blockage while 200 riot police had been dispatched.
The handling of the situation by the Greek government has come under fire by both the Greek officials and the international community. A European Commission spokesperson told reports in Brussels that, “[a]s in all cases we would expect the member state authorities to address such situations using measures that are necessary and proportionate.” The Northern Aegean Regional Governor Kostas Moutzouris also denounced the violence used by the riot police.
Stelios Petsas, a government spokesperson, insisted that health concerns such as coronavirus necessitated the urgent creation of closed centres on islands such as Lesbos, as reported by Al Jazeera. Stephan Oberreit, Médecins Sans Frontières’ (Doctors Without Borders) head of mission for Greece expressed solidarity with local residents and said detention centres were not a solution. He told Al Jazeera, “[w]e stand beside the local communities who oppose the creation of closed camps on the islands.”
The manner in which the Greek government has handled the situation of the burgeoning refugee crisis on the Greek Islands is deplorable. While there was a deal struck by the EU and the Greek government in 2016 to relocate refugees to these islands, there was minimal consultation with the residents. The islands do not have the space nor the resources to sustain the tens of thousands of people who are now being held there. The solution should not be to build a new centre on the island but instead to listen to the cries of the residents to relocate the refugees to the Greek mainland.
Tensions had been on the rise in the Greek islands as the living conditions for both refugees and the local residents worsen. The current main centre which asylum seekers are housed in is an opened camp called Moira, however, the occupancy of this centre is well over its capacity of 3,000, as there is currently 20,000 taking residence in the Moira Camp. The application processing for those seeking refugee has been a slow and arduous process. This has forced occupants into a longer stay than expected which has strained both the resources and economy in the Greek islands of Lesbos and Cios.
For now, tensions will likely remain as it is doubtful that the EU and the Greek government would alter the deal which was made between them. While there may be an inquiry into the situation by the EU, the Greek government will go ahead with its plan to build a new detention centre. However, if the protests last and are continually met with violence by riot police, the EU may look to remedy the situation.