Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and several members of his cabinet are due to travel to the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos on Wednesday and Thursday, in a visit government critics say is little more than a stunt to appease public sentiment amid a fresh spike in migrant arrivals from Turkey.
The officials, who will be attending a regional development conference, are visiting the island just days after dozens of far-right extremists violently attacked a group of some 200 migrants and asylum seekers who had camped out on the main square of Lesvos’s capital, Mytilene, to protest a court decision preventing them from being transferred to the mainland as they await processing.
That incident was followed by unrest in Lesvos’s migrant reception and processing center at Moria, where residents have frequently lashed out against squalid living conditions and delays in their asylum applications, as well as growing concern among islanders over a marked increase in arrivals from Turkey in the wake of deteriorating relations between Athens and Ankara.
“It is un usual for the half the government to be in one place and especially not an island,” Lesvos’s mayor, Spyros Galinos, told Kathimerini. “It is an opportunity for them to meet with the people and give them some answers face to face.”
Galinos and officials from the other Greek islands on the front line of the migration crisis have repeatedly appealed to Athens for measures to relieve pressure on overcrowded camps and other facilities by increasing transfers to the mainland and speeding up returns to Turkey.
Between January and April, however, 4,784 people were transferred from the islands to camps on the mainland and just 112 were returned to Turkey under a deal between Ankara and Brussels. In the meantime, the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros saw 7,594 new arrivals from Turkey, according to official figures.
“The system of returns to Turkey is not working, when it should have served as a counterbalance to arrivals,” Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos said.
Critics also say that the government has not been making use of EU funds for improving conditions at the so-called hot spots and other migrant facilities. For example, funds for increasing the capacity of the sewerage system at the Moria camp set aside in 2016 remain unused, meaning that pipes built to serve 800 residents are having to cope, unsuccessfully, with the waste of a population of more than 6,500 individuals.
“Dirty water has been leaking out of Moria left and right for months,” says Galinos. “It is a ticking public health bomb and it us further angering the local community, which is already exhausted by the situation.”
According to official figures the islands are currently hosting about 15,700 migrants and refugees in facilities built for a maximum of 7,000.
Asylum service workers on the islands also decry working conditions, saying that beyond being short-staffed, they were hired under short-term contracts that have already expired and have received no indication as to whether these will be renewed or not. They also say that their salaries are three months overdue because of delays in releasing the European funds earmarked for this purpose.
“We have been in this crisis for three years. For three years we have been in an emergency situation. We cannot pretend this is normal and wait for the state to act according to its ‘normal’ pace,” says Galinos.