While Lesvos and Chios residents continue to clash with police, heavy construction machinery has arrived at the plots of land where the government’s proposed new migrant camps will be situated.
Samos Island residents are ready to take it to the streets as well, in full protest against the building of the new, enclosed detention camps.
The highest regional and local authorities vehemently oppose the government’s plan as well, arguing that asylum seekers who are to stay for a prolonged period of time should be moved to the Greek mainland instead of being moved to new camps on the islands.
The Greek government insists that these new migrant camps should be constructed so that those who stay there can be returned to Turkey, as per the March 2016 agreement signed between the European Union and Greece’s neighbor.
However, the sheer number of daily migrant arrivals from the shores of Turkey make it impossible for the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) on the islands to handle the volume of asylum applications.
Each of the centers have gone well past their capacities, and as a result, large numbers of migrants are now roaming free on the islands, making their own makeshift camps or staying out in the open.
Greece’s Ministry of Migration and Asylum has been inconsistent in handling this pressing issue so far. On the one hand, Minister Notis Mitarakis promises that the islands will be decongested, while at the same time he meets with mayors and local officials asking for suggestions for places to accommodate new arrivals on the same islands.
The government has decided to go ahead with the plan, despite the strong negative reactions to it. The arrival of several units of riot police on the islands to enforce the government’s decision has been termed an “invasion” by island residents.
In some cases, tear gas and violence has even been used against the protesting residents by the police.
Minister Mitarakis claims in the media that his Ministry exhausted the dialogue with regional and municipal authorities before the decision was made to send riot police to the islands.
Island authorities disagree with this, however, with local officials saying that the government is insisting on its plan to create permanent detention camps on the three islands in question, regardless of the desires of those who live there.
National officials have promised that they will shut down the VIAL migrant RIC on Chios, and build a new structure at Epos. Local journalist Yiannis Manolakis says, however, that locals believe that the VIAL camp will remain open and the new one will be in addition to it.
The prolonged stay of migrants on the islands, made possible by enclosed, organized camps, might also give their Muslim majority the right to demand the building of mosques in the area, something Chios residents do not want.
For Chios natives, the requisition of 600 acres of land at Epos has a doubly negative meaning.
Not only would the land be taken out from under them by the government, but the administration aims to build a detention center with a capacity of 4,000 people — while the Chios municipality has stated that it would accept a center with a capacity of only 500.
At the same time, Epos is place with great historical import. A huge battle took place at Epos during the 1912 war for the island’s liberation from the Turks, and a number of Greek marines were killed there, according to Manolakis.
The main reason islanders are reacting with such anger to the government’s plans is that they do not want the migrants to stay on their land for a prolonged period of time — or admittedly, some don’t want them to stay there at all.
They are not “rightist extremists,” “fanatic nationalists” or “fascists” who are against migrants, as the opposition media have often painted them. They are people living on small islands who have simply come to the end of their tether.
According to Manolakis, there are 7,000 migrants currently staying on Chios. Most of them are families and peaceful people but there are 500-700 of them who commit minor crimes and cause serious property damage.
The delinquent migrants are known to steal sheep and chickens, fruits and vegetables, bicycles and other items. According to the local journalist, they cut down the islanders’ precious olive trees to build fires, destroy irrigation systems by stealing the pipes, which they use to build makeshift tents, and leave trash and waste everywhere.
Even more disturbingly, Manolakis adds, there have been many complaints of sexual harassment against little boys by Afghans.
Adding to all the above is the fact that the migrants’ presence more or less completely deters tourists from visiting these particular islands.
The Greek government, admittedly, is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand they want to decongest the islands and spread the asylum seekers all across the mainland, but on the other they believe they would forfeit the right to send them back to Turkey once they are removed from the islands.
Additionally, this ambivalent stance on the part of Greece is not sending a message that would deter migrants from entering the country by sea. In fact, it sends the opposite message.
Citizens on the Greek mainland are also unhappy with plans to have migrants staying in or near their own cities, as recent protests in several parts of Greece indicate.
Yet the Greek government is forced by the European Union and the UNHCR to follow protocol in the identification of asylum seekers and the handling of asylum applications. These are extremely time-consuming procedures given that the majority of applicants do not present any identification documents whatsoever.
This means that most of the migrants end up staying in Greece for years, even when their applications are rejected in the end, adding to their numbers to a point that it is becoming increasingly difficult to handle.
As a result, Lesvos, Chios and Samos islanders are essentially told that they will be forced to live with the excessive numbers of migrants on their soil for an indefinite period of time. And the only sure thing is that it will not be a short one.