Greece has been stepping up work on new facilities to house asylum seekers on its Aegean islands. The Migration Minister said his government had 'delivered on its promises' on migration.
Greece's Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis says that his country will be ready "to face the next crisis when it comes" and will offer more dignified living conditions to asylum seekers on the Aegean islands.
As construction work continues on several new reception centers – which Greek authorities say will be "closed and controlled," developments in Afghanistan have prompted concerns that progress needs to be swift in anticipation of potentially large number of people seeking protection in Europe throughTurkey.
Mitarakis visited the site of the Vial Reception and Identification Center migrant camp, where clearing works are underway outside the perimeter of the facility.
"We are here at Vial with the Mayor of Chios, Mr Stamatis Karmantzis, to oversee the clearing of areas outside the perimeter, which in the past were used for the needs of residents," said Mitarakis. "Clearly, Vial is now in a completely different situation, as there are only 293 asylum seekers remaining here at a site which can host 1,014 people."
"You all saw the shantytown-style structures we have destroyed; [they were] unacceptable living conditions, you will agree," he added in a media statement.
The new facility to be built on Chios island will cater for up to 1,800 people, while all other sites on the island will be shut down.
"The new structures will offer dignified living conditions for all, but also greatly increased security measures for both residents, employees, and for local communities. The government has implemented everything it has promised to do. We can look at the public with confidence and tell them that we will face the next crisis when it comes," Mitarakis said.
'Sharp drop in asylum seekers'
Mitarakis added that 71 asylum seekers left several apartments in the city and on the outskirts of Chios on Wednesday as the government's efforts in decongesting the migrant populations on the Aegean islands continues.
"For the first time in eight years, Chios will have less than 500 asylum seekers in total; this shows that we have delivered on what we promised," continued Mitarakis.
He added: "The guarding of our borders, with the reduction of the flows of people to our islands being reduced by 97% in the last 12 months, and with the complete decongestion of the structures in our islands, this means that in total in all the Aegean islands we now have less than 5,000 asylum seekers."
Asked by reporters whether he anticipated opposition and strong reactions - which has been the case on some islands with locals resisting the plans - to the new camps being built, Mitarakis insisted he was not worried.
"There are no reasons for such reactions, since trust between Greek citizens and the government has been restored because of the fact that the government has delivered on our pre-election promises on migration."
As well as the new site on Chios, which will be opened in 2022 as part of the government's new national migration reception system, a new facility in Samos will be inaugurated on September 18, with the old site to be closed 12 days later. A similar plan is in place for Leros and Kos by the end of this year, as well as for Lesbos in 2022.
"This is all especially important as we see that there are still tensions in the wider region, and so we must be prepared, so that our islands - and this is a commitment of ours - never have to relive images of chaos that we saw in 2015."
Greece priorities border protection
Mitarakis and other Greek government officials have been at pains to hammer home the message that Greece is focusing on bolstering defences at its borders. Over the weekend, Greece's head of the country's Armed Forces claimed that Greece's northeastern border with Turkey is "impregnable," following a visit to the Evros region along with Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos.
Such comments have drawn widespread criticism, including from the Greek opposition party Syriza, for their perceived insensitivity at a time when a humanitarian crisis is developing in Afghanistan.
Mitarakis had previously hit back at such claims, however, saying: "Syriza does not stop reminding us of its past, with painful results in all areas. The effects on immigration were devastating for our islands and the country in general."