Greek authorities have started evacuating one of the last refugee camps in Athens, leading to a stand-off with migrant protestors. Police used tear gas and a flash grenade to subdue activists and migrants on Thursday.
The clearance operation of the Eleonas camp started at 5:00am local time in Athens. However, when they arrived, police initially ran into barricades, which the residents of the 670-strong camp had erected around the gates in a bid to stop their eviction.
After removing the improvized structures, police clashed with migrants, eventually pushing them back with the use of tear gas and a flash grenade, as seen in videos posted by activists who were at the scene.
Authorities added that in the end, they only had to remove a couple of dozen people, who were mostly taken to the last remaining camp in the Athens area, which is situated in the outskirts of the capital.
According to the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, an official at the Greek Migration Ministry said that all the migrants who were transferred had consented to the move, and that the rest of the evacuation procedure from the Eleonas camp would be completed by the end of 2022.
A 'good' refugee camp
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said on Twitter on Thursday that the government was going to "proceed with the closure of the Eleonas camp" in order to upgrade the area. He added that places for asylum seekers were available in other areas.
"Unfortunately, a small group of migrants and solidarity groups are trying to block the move," Mitarakis added.
The residents appeared to be reluctant to leave Eleonas, as they don’t know what might await them elsewhere. At Eleonas, they enjoy a high quality of life by Greek refugee camp standards. The camp was situated near the center of Athens and camp residents were allowed to leave the facility as they wished — which is not the case in some other such facilities.
Read more: A look at refugee camps in Greece
Eleonas: a piece of history
At the height of the so-called refugee crisis of 2015-16, over a million people — mostly of Syrian origin — reached Europe, largely arriving first in Greece. At the time, Eleonas was the first camp to open in mainland Greece, with the majority of camps being established on the Greek islands, where most migrants first arrived.
Thousands of migrants continue to come to Greece via Turkey, typically crossing the Aegean Sea on unseaworthy vessels. Hundreds die each year on this migrant route alone.
Others resort to using the land border between the two countries, which is more heavily fortified. However, there have been deaths along that route as well, with people drowning or suffering other accidents along the Evros River, which separates Greece and Turkey.
NGOs have accused both governments of illegally pushing back migrants on both the sea and land route. Both Greece and Turkey deny those accusations and have been passing the blame to each other whenever migrants report these and other human rights abuses along the migratory route.