Greece: Island mayors in Athens to protest migrant situation

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The “anxiety and indignation” of Greek island residents living at the forefront of a migration crisis are justified, Greece's migration and asylum minister said Thursday, and vowed to address d ramatic overcrowding on island camps and the increasing number of new arrivals.

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Residents and business owners on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos have held two days of protests and went on strike to demand that the government tackle severe overcrowding at migrant camps that are all grossly over capacity.

Local mayors and the regional governor traveled to Athens to meet with Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis Thursday to press their demands.

“We consider citizens' anxiety and indignation justified,” Mitarakis said after the meeting. “Our country is indeed dealing with a migration crisis, and increased migration flows in 2019” put pressure on local communities, he said.

Greece’s six-month-old government has vowed to ease refugee camp overcrowding but so far has not managed to do so. It also said it would speed up deportations and introduce pre-departure camps that are closed. Migrants in the current camps are free to come and go, although they cannot leave the islands.

Greece has been the first point of entry into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty at home, with most arriving on eastern Aegean islands from nearby Turkey.

Under a 2016 EU-Turkey deal, new arrivals must stay on the islands pending deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. Only those deemed vulnerable can be transferred to the mainland.

Long delays in the asylum process have led to thousands being stranded on the islands, with camps at between six and 12 times over their capacity. Rights groups have long criticized living conditions in the camps, where fights and violence are common.

The Greek National Commission for Human Rights, an independent advisory board to the state, issued a statement Thursday after a two-day visit to Samos, slamming conditions on the island where 7,200 people are living in and around a camp built to house 648.

The commission said the situation for asylum seekers at the camp was “out of control and and abolishes all notion of human dignity of those living in these places.” It said there was an “urgent need” to immediately end the situation whereby asylum-seekers are trapped on the islands.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, on Thursday accused Greece of “deliberately depriving at last 140 children of adequate medical care for chronic, complex and life-threatening diseases” at Lesbos' Moria camp.

The aid group said children with asthma, diabetes and heart disease were living in tents “in abysmal, unhygienic conditions, with no access to the specialized medical care and medication they need.”

MSF said some of the children were screened for transfer to mainland Greece but none had been sent there.

The EU-Turkey deal “continues to create unnecessary suffering and puts lives in danger,” MSF said.

In Athens, Mitarakis said the government and the islands officials agreed on current priorities, which are to reduce the number of new arrivals, ease overcrowding in the camps, speed up returns to Turkey, improve the asylum process and improve healthcare facilities on the islands.

“We agree on the need for there to be closed pre-departure facilities, we disagree on the size and the method of operation,” Mitarakis said.

The minister added he would be meeting the mayors and regional governor every two weeks.

Asked about the issue, a spokesman for the European Union's executive commission, Adalbert Jahnz, said the European Commission was “aware of the situation in Greece."

"We're very concerned about the very difficult conditions on the ground, and we're aware of the difficulties of a different nature that exist in terms of managing the issue in Greece,” he said.

Jahnz noted the EU had provided 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 million) and personnel to Greece since the European migration crisis began in 2015. The commission in Brussels, he said, was in touch with Greek authorities and “discussing how the commission can provide ongoing support and more effective support to the Greek authorities.”

Although most asylum-seekers head from Turkey to Greek islands, many also cross the land border separating the neighboring countries and then head to cities in northern Greece.

Police said Thursday that a car carrying 11 people suspected of being smuggled migrants crashed after a police chase in northern Greece, leaving one passenger dead and three injured, all Syrian men. The driver, also a Syrian man, was arrested.

Another car carrying 12 people - 11 men and a 15-year-old girl, all from Syria - also crashed during a police chase Wednesday. Nobody was injured, and the driver, a 23-year-old Syrian, was arrested. The passengers told police they had paid 2,500 euros each for the journey from Turkey.

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Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed.