Greece to shut three largest island camps in migration overhaul

The government has committed to relocating 20,000 migrants to the mainland by next year

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 22, 2019 builders work on the construction site of the refugee camp of Ritsona for the expanding of the housing facilities, some 80km north of Athens on October 22, 2019. Greece will shut down the three largest of its overcrowded migrant camps on islands facing Turkey, and replace them with new closed facilities with much larger capacity, officials said on November 20, 2019. Three camps are to be closed, on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, currently housing over 27,000 people under terrible conditions which have been repeatedly castigated by rights groups. They have a nominal capacity of just 4,500. / AFP / Louisa GOULIAMAKI
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Greece on Wednesday announced a plan to close down the three largest migrant camps on its islands near Turkey as part of a substantial overhaul of its migration system.

The new conservative government, which defeated the leftist Syriza in a July election, wants to make the country’s borders “air-tight” against a feared surge in the number of asylum-seekers in a marked toughening of Greece’s migration policy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to "open the gates" for millions of refugees if it does not receive more European Union aid.

An influx of migrants arriving on Greece’s islands from Turkey has put camps under massive pressure, with severe overcrowding and a sluggish asylum process leaving tens of thousands in limbo.

"Decongesting the islands is a priority at this stage," the government's special coordinator for migration Alkiviadis Stefanis, told a news conference.

"These actions are designed to show our determination in dealing with the migrant-refugee crisis," said Mr Stefanis, a former army general and chief of staff who is also deputy defence minister.

Migrants make their way at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Elias Marcou
Migrants make their way at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos. Reuters

The government will hire 400 additional guards for the land border with Turkey and 800 for the islands, he said.

Three camps are to be closed on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, which are currently housing over 27,000 people under terrible conditions which have been repeatedly castigated by rights groups.

Last week the death of a 9-month-old baby led to renewed calls for action over conditions in the Moria camp on Lesbos, where around 15,000 migrants live in a space designed for just 3,000.

And on the Island of Samos, a camp originally built to house 650 migrants is now home to 6,000.

The Greek government said it would replace the camps with new closed facilities for identification, relocation and deportation with a capacity of at least 5,000 people each.

Smaller camps on the islands of Kos and Leros are also to be remodelled along these lines and enlarged, Mr Stefanis said.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019 photo, people wait outside the information office at a refugee and migrant camp of the Greek island of Samos. Greece's conservative government announced Wednesday Nov. 20, 2019, plans to overhaul the country's migration management system, and replacing existing camps on the islands with detention facilities and moving and 20,000 asylum seekers to the mainland over the next few weeks. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
People wait outside the information office at a refugee and migrant camp on the Greek island of Samos. AP

Instead of being allowed to move freely in and out of the camps, asylum-seekers will now be locked up until they are granted refugee status and relocated to the mainland, or they are rejected and sent back to Turkey, officials said.

In the new, more restrictive holding centres, asylum-seekers will stay in containers and have access to refectories, schools, and places of worship, Mr Stefanis said.

The government has vowed to relocate 20,000 asylum-seekers to camps on the mainland by early 2020.

Fifteen thousand will stay in camps and 5,000 in hotels, Mr Stefanis said.

Four years after the 2015 refugee crisis, Greece has again become a key point of entry for asylum-seekers to Europe.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has recorded more than 100,000 migrants arriving in Europe by the Mediterranean route so far in 2019.

Of those, nearly 60,000 arrived in Greece, and according to government figures, there are now over 37,000 asylum-seekers spread across all the island camps.

The International Organisation for Migration says there are an additional 22,000 people in camps on the mainland, which are nearly full or already past capacity.

The new conservative government which came to power in July has already passed a law stiffening asylum requirements for migrants, which was criticised by rights groups as harmful to the interests of vulnerable asylum-seekers.

epa07997244 Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis delivers a speech at the 4th Thessaloniki Summit organised by the Federation of Industries of Greece (SBE), in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, 14 November 2019.  EPA/GRIGORIS SIAMIDIS
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has enacted measures to counter an influx of migrants arriving on Greek shores. EPA

Mr Stefanis on Wednesday also said new criteria would be issued for the operation of NGO groups helping migrants, warning that only groups “that meet the requirements will stay and continue to operate in the country".

The government will also improve health facilities in areas receiving asylum-seekers, and set aside a fund of €50 million (Dh 203 million) for works in municipalities who agree to cooperate.

There have been protests in several towns in northern Greece in recent weeks to block attempts to relocate asylum-seekers.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday accused the European Union of treating countries on the bloc's external frontiers as convenient places to park migrants.

"It cannot go on like this," Mr Mitsotakis told German newspaper Handelsblatt.

"Europe regards arrival countries such as Greece as a convenient parking spot for refugees and migrants. Is that European solidarity? No! I will no longer accept this."

Mr Mitsotakis insists that most new arrivals to Greece are "economic migrants" from Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa rather than refugees fleeing violence in Syria.