Greek islanders strike as migrant camp row intensifies


Lesbos Island (Greece) (AFP)

The Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos staged a general strike Wednesday, as protests against the construction of new migrant camps intensified.

For a second day, protesters on Lesbos faced off against riot police near the town of Mantamados, close to the site of a planned camp for up to 7,000 people.

Small groups of protesters threw stones and firebombs at the police, who responded with tear gas and flash grenades.

"You're going to die here," a protester shouted as police, as others screamed obscenities at them.

"We are in a wartime situation," local priest Father Stratis told AFP. "(The police) have the weapons, we have our heart and soul."

The regional governor's office has called a 24-hour strike, rejecting the government's plans to build the new camps to replace currently overcrowded facilities where asylum-seekers live in dire conditions.

On Chios, hundreds gathered in a protest at the main square of the island's capital.

There are more than 38,000 migrants crowded into camps on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos despite an official capacity of just 6,200.

The islanders, who have long complained that the presence of thousands of asylum seekers threatens safety and public health, oppose government plans to build new camps for them there.

"We are also fighting for those who want to go to a better place. We want them to leave" the squalid camps, Father Stratis said.

"We will embrace war refugees, but the criminals should go back."

The islanders say they will only accept small facilities where asylum-seekers are screened and then either moved to the mainland or sent back to Turkey outright.

- 'Trust us': migration minister -

The conservative government, which came to power in July has announced that the camps on Lesbos, Samos and Chios will be shut down this year, to be replaced with new facilities that are to be operational by mid-2020.

On Leros and Kos, existing facilities are to be revamped and expanded.

The government says that the new camps, where entry and exit will be tightly controlled, will actually address most of the islanders' concerns by ending a currently "chaotic" situation.

"We are creating 20,000 places of hospitality on the islands when today there are over 42,000," migration minister Notis Mitarachi told Skai radio.

"I would be irresponsible if I allowed the islands to remain undefended in the face of migration flows."

"We ask residents to trust us," he said.

The administration of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is under increasing pressure to address the issue before springtime, when new arrivals from Turkey are expected to increase.

After weeks of fruitless talks with local officials, the government on Monday secretly shipped construction machinery and hundreds of riot police to Lesbos and Chios, causing outrage.

The state had already angered the islanders earlier this month by announcing that land could be requisitioned for a three-year period to build the new facilities.

"There is a limit to our patience," said one villager, Stratos Paspalas, a retired butcher. "They requisition areas and bring riot police, tear gas people. Are we at war?"