Two days after a migrant woman died in the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, 215 migrants arrived on the mainland on Tuesday by ferry as part of government efforts to tackle massive overcrowding in the camp. Other measures include speeding up asylum applications and returning 10,000 migrants to Turkey.
Signaling a shift in policy, the Greek government said Monday it would accelerate efforts to move thousands of refugees and migrants from Aegean Sea islands to the mainland following a deadly fire at the country's largest camp on the island of Lesbos.
On Tuesday, more than 200 people, mostly infirm and underage migrants, arrived at the Greek port city of Piraeus near the capital Athens by ferry, as reported by Greece's national broadcaster, ERT.
The decision was announced after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a four-hour cabinet meeting, which marked the beginning of the implementation of a package of measures decided on Monday with the goal of easing the situation on the Greek islands.
Among other things, the government wants to speed up asylum processes, which have been stagnating for months; from now on, asylum applications are to be decided within three months.
More than 12,000 people — more than four times the site's capacity — are currently being housed in the Moria camp as well as just outside its perimeter following a spike in migrant arrivals over the summer.
According to the new plans unveiled by government officials on Monday, migrant camps are to be evenly distributed nationally across all 13 regional authorities in Greece, most of which are to be located on the mainland. This new policy replaces the three-year-old practice of containing new arrivals to the island of Lesbos and four other eastern islands facing the Turkish coast.
"This is a national crisis and it must be addressed with a spirit of responsibility," said Eleftherios Oikonomou, a deputy public order minister. "The number of people on the islands will be reduced in an orderly way that is proportionate and involves the 13 regional authorities."
Other decisions include the creation of detention centers for migrants who do not have the right to apply for asylum, continued military support for coast guard patrols in the eastern Aegean, and high-level contacts between the Greek and Turkish governments to restart deportations to Turkey.
More specifically, Greece wants 10,000 migrants to return to Turkey by the end of 2020, a number that would mark a significant increase from the "1,805 returned in the 4.5 years under the previous (left-wing) Syriza government," the government said in a statement.
The containment policy on the Greek islands was part of measures introduced under a 2016 agreement ("EU-Turkey deal") between the European Union and Turkey to fight illegal immigration into Europe.
Arson unlikely cause of fire
Police said the fire, which left one asylum seeker dead and at least 17 injured, gutted eight container homes in the camp and triggered rioting among camp residents who had to be dispersed by riot police using stun grenades.
No sign of arson was found at the site, which contradicted earlier statements made by local authorities on the island, saying the fire may have been started deliberately by camp dwellers.
'Truly tragic event'
Mina Andreeva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission (EC), said the EU executive supported the latest Greek measures and was ready to provide additional support. She described the fire on Lesbos as a "truly tragic event."
"The increased arrivals in Greece over the past weeks have put an immense strain on an already flawed system and are creating unsustainable conditions as we have already had the opportunity to point out in the past," Andreeva said.
A UNHCR spokesperson called for better conditions at Moria and faster transfers of migrants off the island, while aid agency Oxfam argued that Sunday's fatal fire was a direct consequence of the EU's migration policy.
In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government backed Greek efforts to increase the number of migrant deportations to Turkey.
The interior ministers of France and Germany are due to visit Greece and Turkey this week along with outgoing EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
Between September 2 and 15, some 2,510 migrants have been transferred from the Greek islands to the mainland, UN figures show. According to Oxfam, however, there are still more than 26,200 migrants spread across the Aegean island camps.
With material from APTN, AP