Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas came under fire in Parliament on Friday – even from within the ranks of his own party – following a deadly fire at a migrant processing center on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos.
Most of the ammunition directed at the leftist minister related to conditions at the camps on Lesvos, Samos, Kos and Chios, with critics saying that overcrowding at these facilities is putting the migrants at risk and stoking reactions from local communities.
MPs cited the Moria camp fire on Thursday night, which was sparked by the explosion of a gas burner while a grandmother was cooking for her family. Both the elderly woman and her young grandson were killed in the blaze, while the boy’s 25-year-old mother and younger brother, a toddler of 2, are in critical condition in an Athens hospital after the fire spread to their tent, pitched right next door.
They also criticized the minister for failing to take precautions for the onset of winter and ensuring that camp residents were provided with adequate shelter, as well as for dismissing calls to transfer migrants and refugees awaiting processing at the island camps to the mainland.
Mouzalas told lawmakers that transferring migrants to the mainland could threaten a deal between the European Union and Turkey by which Ankara agreed to take back migrants who were denied asylum in exchange for financial assistance. The deal, meanwhile, became even more precarious on Friday after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned European lawmakers that he would open the border with Greece if his country’s bid to join the bloc was not pushed forward.
Mouzalas said that the only viable option at this point would be to build additional facilities on the host islands in order to take some of the pressure of overcrowding off the existing camps, but added that this plan has been resisted by both local authorities as well as lawmakers inside his leftist SYRIZA party.
The minister responded to calls from a Greek Communist Party (KKE) MP to evacuate the island camps by saying that the deal with Turkey has so far prevented as many as 150,000 migrants and asylum-seekers from entering Greece. Greece is currently struggling to cope with around 61,000 migrants spread across the country.
“In order to improve existing facilities and put an end to such tragedies, we need more camps. If this doesn’t happen, the consequences will be tragic,” Mouzalas told the KKE MP.
“It appears to me that you are blackmailing the [island] residents in the same way that Erdogan is blackmailing Greece and Europe. You are telling them to keep quiet or there will be worse to come,” KKE’s Christos Katsotis retorted. “You are shirking your responsibilities.”
Mouzalas also came under fire from a SYRIZA lawmaker, who said that transferring migrants to the mainland would not be in violation of the EU-Turkey deal.
“You aligned with those objecting to a new camp,” Mouzalas told the leftist party’s representative for Samos, Dimitris Sevastakis. “It is you and the local authorities who are refusing our proposal to open a new camp that would improve the situation.”
Mouzalas admitted that migrant processing is “moving at a pace that is disproportionate to the problem,” but argued that part of the responsibility lay with the European Union for failing to send enough staff to help speed up asylum application reviews. “We had an agreement for 400 staffers. Just 35 have arrived. We had a new agreement for another 100 and are still waiting," Mouzalas said.
The minister also made special reference to Chios, where local officials and residents have become increasingly vocal over the past few weeks in their demand for the camp at Souda to be shut down.
That same camp has come under attack at least twice in as many weeks by unknown assailants who lobbed rocks and homemade firebombs at tents, sparking riots among restless camp residents.
Mouzalas called for an immediate inquiry into the attacks, expressing his belief that they are connected to the far-right party Golden Dawn, an assertion that has also been made by aid workers at the facility.