ATHENS – Five Aegean islands overcrowded with more than 40,000 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, have taken a stand against the Greek government.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly from conflict-ridden nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, have been living in camps that only have capacity for 6,000.
Five island communities have taken a stand against the government of conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Hundreds of residents and local politicians protested outside the Ministry of Interior in Athens against plans to create new migrant centers on the islands.
Campaigners have called for an end to overcrowding at the camps, the transfer of all or the majority of migrants to the mainland and have said they are not willing to accept new facilities under any circumstances.
Kostas Muntsuris, central governor of the North Aegean region, told EFE during the demonstration: “The people of the islands showed hospitality when one million came from Syria and they accommodated them, they helped them and they transferred them to the rest of the country, but now the problem is completely different.
“They are economic immigrants that want to settle somewhere and these islands cannot stand and support them, they aren’t able to accommodate all these people.
“Therefore, we see that all Europe has built a wall around its borders and now this country, Greece, is building a second wall around continental Greece.”
The final straw for the island communities was a law approved by the government this week which allows the requisition of land on Lesvos, Samos and Chios to build new detention centers.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas has said in several interviews on public television stations over the past few days that the government will not back down.
He said land owners will be expropriated by the state and will be paid rent for three years.
Islanders fear the new centers will not replace the current ones but that they will open alongside existing camps.
One camp on Samos is home to around 7,300 people, 11 times more than its capacity, and has more inhabitants than the island’s capital city, which has around 6,250 residents.
There have also been issues with transfers to the mainland not taking place as promised by the government, with only 9,000 taking place out of 20,000 announced at the beginning of the year.
Despite this, Petsas has insisted it will be feasible to remove the remaining 11,000 people before the summer.
In addition to speeding up asylum procedures, a necessary condition for people to move to the mainland or be returned to Turkey, the government has also pledged to strengthen border control and install floating fences at sea to stop people arriving in small boats.
Yannis Burnus, deputy leader of left-wing party Syriza, told EFE island residents are not racist but that the issue of migration should be shared equally by other areas of the EU.
“The handling of the refugee crisis demonstrates the bankruptcy of the European integration model,” he added.
“The European Union leadership has left the Greek islands alone and they thought that they would transform Greece and Italy into a giant prison for refugees and immigrants only by giving money to our respective countries.
“This does not solve the problem. If we talk about a union of Europe then we should talk about shared responsibility and the European member states should also share this responsibility in a way that shares the problem and leads to more human conditions for immigrants and refugees themselves.”