Archive: Migrants being transferred from the island of Leros to mainland Greece, November 1, 2019 | Photo: EPA/STRATIS BALASKAS
Archive: Migrants being transferred from the island of Leros to mainland Greece, November 1, 2019 | Photo: EPA/STRATIS BALASKAS

Greece's migration ministry is facing stiff opposition to its unexpected proposal to create new, larger reception and identification centers for asylum seekers on the northern land border at Evros, as well as on the southeastern Aegean island of Leros.

Representatives of local governments, the church and local communities have stated that they will move to block the proposal of creating new reception centers for asylum seekers near the Evros land border and on the Aegean island of Leros.

At Evros, the plan would that the capacity of the current center would triple from 600 to 1,500 people. The deputy governor of Evros, Dimitris Petrovic, signed a joint statement along with other local government officials.

The local municipalities are fearful that the move would potentially lead to essentially creating a migrant camp on the country's borders, similar to scenes from the peak of the crisis in 2015 when such camps were scattered across the Northern border.

Migration minister determined to go ahead

The minister of migration and asylum, Notis Mitarakis, is determined to push through his plans, but according to local media reports in Greece, the parties disagreed in a teleconference call held on the issue last week.

In a joint media statement issued, the local government officials and local church and community bodies emphasized that "we will not accept the expansion, while we also demand the improvement of the conditions in the existing structures."

The local officials expressed their regret for the lack of information from Mitarakis, and that the decision for the expansion of the camp was published without first consulting with them. They made it clear to Mitarakis that "it is impossible for us to lift the weight of such a decision which essentially triples the capacity of the facility."

Mitarakis is set to visit the area in the next two weeks for further talks in an effort to smooth things over and try to overcome the objections.

For his part, Mitarakis has defended the ministry's choices and has made it clear that the expansion "will proceed, as it contributes to a further substantial reduction of flows and the safety of local residents."

According to Mitarakis, the new structure will be closed and controlled, while it will operate in support of the new border structures at Evros, in a comprehensive policy of containment and control of the immigration crisis.

Opposition and local government and groups react

The opposition party SYRIZA in (Western) Thrace (region in northeastern Greece) has since accused the government of contradicting themselves, recalling the firm position of the previous SYRIZA government's stance on excluding Thrace from the creation of any new structures.

In addition, the Municipality of Orestiada's (where the Evros facility is located) community group also released a statement saying that "the region has for many years carried a heavy burden during the refugee crisis and that it can no longer be burdened with the expansion or creation of new structures, although we are not opposed to the improvement and modernization of existing infrastructure."

Meanwhile in Leros, the island's municipal authority has appealed to the Council of State in a bid to stop the construction of a new facility with a capacity of 2,000 people (the existing one can accommodate up to 800), stating that the selected location, Lakki Bay, is an area of exceptional natural beauty and has been designated as a protected area.

The outcome of the government's visit to the Evros area remains to be seen. So far in other areas with so-called migrant 'hotspot' centers, expansion plans have been hard to implement.

Reshuffle spells tough future for migrants

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, however, seems to be positioning his government in a way to emphasize his so-far tough stance on the migrant issue.

A recent cabinet reshuffle has seen two conservative hardliners take up positions in the interior and migration ministries.

The new deputy migration minister Sofia Voultepsi has previously referred to migrants as 'unarmed invaders'.

In the second cabinet reshuffle in five months, on January 4 Mitsotakis also named Makis Voridis as the country's new interior minister.

In the 1990s, Voridis founded the now-defunct nationalist party "Hellenic Front", which is affiliated with the far-right National Front in France.

Voridis takes over the office of interior minister from his current position as agriculture minister. Voultepsi is a former journalist and has been a member of the liberal conservative party 'New Democracy' (Néa Dimokratía) since 2004.

Analysts said the new reshuffle is a decisive conservative turn in light of possible early elections ahead of those scheduled for 2023.


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