By Sarah Goodman
Rabat – Overcrowded facilities, dropping temperatures, and rising tensions have created a “state of emergency” on the Greek island of Lesvos, according to Mayor Spiros Galinos.
Last week, Galinos called for a general strike to protest the policies of the European Union and Greek government in Athens, which effectively confine migrants and refugees on islands far from the Greek mainland. In Galinos’ words, such policies are changing Lesvos from “a center of culture” to a “prison island.”
Speaking before supporters gathered at Lesvos’ main port, Mytilene, Galinos declared, “we can’t take it any more.”
Since 2015, a small constellation of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean has served as a threshold to Europe for over a million people making the perilous crossing from Turkey. According to the UNHCR, Lesvos, the largest island in the archipelago, saw over 90,000 migrants arrive in 2016 alone.
However, since the controversial European Union–Turkey statement came into effect in March 2016, the islands have become de facto holding cells for migrants during their asylum application, a process which may take several months or longer.
In a press release last month, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) identified “asylum seekers who arrived on the islands in the first days of the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal [and] have been stuck there for almost 19 months.”
As temperatures dip and frustrations mount, dozens of migrants, some as young as 17, have joined a hunger strike on Lesvos.
Fires and protests broke out in the island’s largest facility, Moria. Terrible rains exacerbated the situation, as camp residents, many of whom sleep under UNHCR plastic tarpaulins and makeshift shelters, protested from within the barbed wire-topped enclosure. It was broken up when police intervened with tear gas, noted one NGO. According to the media report, the UNHCR office in Moria camp was vandalized.
The demand of the Greek protesters was simple: the transfer of migrants to facilities on the Greek mainland. There are roughly 8,500 migrants currently on the island, cramped into facilities that were made to accommodate fewer than a third of that number.
Last month in an open letter addressed to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, 19 humanitarian organizations urged him to end the “containment policy” for asylum seekers on islands like Lesvos.
Giorgos Patoulis, the president of the Union of Municipalities and Communities of Greece (KEDE), commented that “the increased migrant flows from Turkey in recent months, combined with enormous delays in their relocation and minimal repatriation, are disrupting social cohesion and fostering ill sentiment from some minority groups.”
The UNHCR has promised emergency action and transferred 800 people to the mainland since the start of November.
Protests continued on Lesvos over the weekend. On Saturday, Lesvos News reported that 170 people had arrived on the island in the past 24 hours.