Greek islanders stage new protests over migrant camps


Lesbos Island (Greece) (AFP)

More than 1,000 people rallied on the Greek island of Lesbos on Thursday to protest against new migrant camps, a day after violent clashes left more than 60 injured, mostly police officers.

Lesbos businesses and unions called for a general strike on the island to continue, with shops shuttered for the second day in a row.

"No camps on the islands, either open or closed," the demonstrators chanted as they marched in the port town of Mytilene.

On the neighbouring island of Chios, hundreds of protesters took part in a similar rally.

The demonstrations on Thursday were more peaceful than the previous day when locals had clashed violently with police over the construction of new migrant camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.

On Wednesday, hundreds of angry islanders threw stones at police who responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

The Greek government said that hundreds of anti-riot police who had deployed to the islands to ensure the construction work could continue had now left.

"The first phase of digging is complete, (so) the police forces can now return," said government spokesman Stelios Petsas.

"The overwhelming majority of riot police left the islands on Thursday morning," police spokesman Thodoros Chronopoulos told AFP.

"Forty-three officers were injured slightly on Lesbos on Wednesday... but they are not in any danger," the spokesman said. Three had foot injuries from rifles fired by local residents, he said.

After weeks of fruitless talks with island officials on where to build the new facilities, the government had on Monday secretly shipped construction machinery and hundreds of riot police to Lesbos and Chios, causing outrage.

Lesbos "has become an enormous prison for migrant souls. We've shown our solidarity all these years, but the burden on the islands now needs to be eased," said one demonstrator, 47-year-old university employee Michael Hakas.

- Overcrowded camps -

The Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos have been at the forefront of the migration crisis for the past five years, with residents long complaining that the presence of thousands of asylum seekers threatens safety and public health.

More than 38,000 migrants are crowded into the islands' camps despite an official capacity of just 6,200.

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.

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.

Local authorities have rejected the government's plans to build the new camps to replace currently overcrowded facilities where asylum-seekers live in dire conditions.

But 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.

- Appeal for calm -

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called for calm and invited the islands' mayors and the North Aegean governor to talks in Athens later on Thursday.

"I understand the situation on the islands," he said during a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

"But we have to isolate extremist elements," Mitsotakis said, adding that an investigation would be opened into "the use of excess violence" by some people.

Chios mayor Stamatis Karmantzis stressed the need for dialogue.

"The migrant question is a national and a European issue, not just a problem for the Aegean islands," he said.