Riot police confront migrants from the Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece, 3 February 2020 | Photo: EPA/S. Balaskas
Riot police confront migrants from the Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece, 3 February 2020 | Photo: EPA/S. Balaskas

Greece's government has hardened its position after protests by migrants at the Moria camp on Lesbos demanding "freedom and asylum". On Monday, a group of around 300 migrants marched to the village of Moria clashing with police who used tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.

Following protests on Lesbos on Monday, the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said intimidation tactics would not prevent the government from dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis on its terms. On Tuesday, Parliament was expected to vote on a bill granting extra funding to municipalities with reception facilities for asylum seekers, as well as an investigation into all NGOs operating in Greece.

"The safety of our local citizens comes first, and this kind of abusive and aggressive behavior does not equal the granting of asylum," Mitarakis told reporters. The minister added that such incidents and upheaval "confirmed the need to accelerate the asylum process and to send back those migrants who do not merit refugee status to their country of origin."

"The Greek authorities are stepping up security and safeguards, as well as investigating the possibility of some people inciting such incidents," said Mitarakis, adding that "some may be upset, but let's face it, the policy [on the refugee issue] has changed."

Monday's violent scenes are the latest in a series of protests from people staying at the overcrowded camp at Moria on Lesbos Island, where thousands of people are sleeping rough in olive groves next to the formal camp. The protests are over the slow processing of asylum requests and poor living conditions.

New Democracy gets tough

Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy government has taken a tougher stance on the refugee issue since coming to power six months ago. While New Democracy has introduced several measures to speed up asylum application processes and transfers of people from the islands to the mainland, as well as tougher legislative measures and border security with the help of Frontex, the government is still struggling to address the problem.

In December, Mitsotakis' government introduced stricter legislation on migration with the aim of limiting new arrivals, increasing deportations of failed asylum seekers and announcing a plan to establish more restrictive "closed" holding centers. However, the effect has hardly been felt, especially on the islands, where local authorities and business owners went on strike on Lesbos, Chios and Samos two weeks ago for two days to protest the situation.

A few days ago, the government was heavily criticized by human rights groups such as Amnesty International as well as opposition party SYRIZA for its plans to build a floating sea barrier to stop refugees and migrants coming to the Greek islands on boats from the Turkish coast. Greece's Defense Ministry announced that it had launched a tender for private contractors to bid on construction and supply of a 2.7 kilometer-long floating fence within three months.

Syriza laments 'tragic' government

The opposition has blamed the protests at Moria on the government, criticizing it for using excessive force. It says the government is responsible for violence against families and underage children, referring to "pre-election refugee exploitation" and racist rhetoric.

"The tragic images unfolding in Moria, where riot police attacked refugees complaining about living conditions using chemicals - even underage children - are the result of the total irresponsibility with which the Mitsotakis government is handling the refugee problem," said a SYRIZA statement. It added: "They have exploited promises of 'solving' the refugee issue during pre-election ballots, releasing irresponsible announcements that there would be an immediate solution, and they have slipped into an intolerant and racist rhetoric that has poisoned local communities."

"The situation in Moria, as well as in many other refugee centers, is literally tragic," the SYRIZA statement continued. "Unfortunately, even after seven months of mistakes, which have cost both refugees and migrants, as well as local communities, [it] continues to shame the country in the eyes of the international community."

In 2019 alone, a total of 60,000 people arrived in Greece by sea, almost double the number of sea arrivals in 2018. Between January and October, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also recorded 66 deaths on the Eastern Mediterranean sea route. Over 80% of migrant arrivals in 2019 were by sea, with the northeast Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos receiving the most.


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