February 2016: Four platoons of riot police are dispatched to Kos from Athens. Dozens of residents on the eastern Aegean island block the road leading to the village of Pyli with rocks and fires, as they oppose the construction of a migrant identification and reception center in the area. They clash with police, who use tear gas to disperse the protesters. “The refugees will only spend 72 hours in the camp so they can be processed. I don’t understand what all the tension is about,” says then alternate defense minister Dimitris Vitsas of the leftist SYRIZA party, brushing off the reactions.
February 2020: The center-right New Democracy party decides to expropriate land on the five Aegean islands hosting migrant camps to build new closed pre-departure facilities. Riot police are dispatched from Athens. Hundreds of local residents wait for them at Lesvos’ main port of Mytilene. Clashes and tear gas follow.
Regardless of which political parties and state officials are responsible, Greece’s abject failure to manage the refugee/migrant crisis has been evident for years. The agreement between the European Union and Turkey, meanwhile, has also proved a complete failure. From March 2016, when the agreement went into force, until December 2018, the Greek islands received 84,210 people, just 1,806 of whom were returned to Turkey. Returns dropped even further in 2019.
Forcing thousands of people to stay on the islands on the pretext of following the rules of the agreement with Turkey has resulted in camp populations swelling to the extent that tent cities spill out into the surrounding areas. It has resulted in thousands of asylum seekers being left waiting in vain for their applications to be processed and in the patience and tolerance of the island communities hosting them being tested.
When the most recent count at Moria found that there are 19,484 people at the camp (nearly seven times its capacity), what can the construction of a new camp for 5,000 people possibly accomplish?
Government officials who believe that a detention facility will send a stern message and discourage other migrants and refugees from making the crossing from Turkey need to have a look at the living conditions in “the jungle,” as the spillover camp in an olive grove beside Moria is known.
The government’s first matter of business should be to relieve pressure on the islands, close these awful makeshift camps and speed up the asylum process.