An unprecedented violent outbreak is taking place among migrants and refugees on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios. At the beginning of February the public has witnessed extended unrest in those islands, as the asylum-seekers stationed there have gathered together to protest in what turned out to be a not that peaceful demonstration.

How Many Asylum-Seekers are Currently on Greece’s Aegean Islands?

Island residents and the municipal authorities are agonizing about the future and have been desperately asking for a political solution. According to official data over 40,000 asylum-seekers are currently placed in the Aegean islands. Most of these people are dispersed among the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and the numbers are certainly disproportionate to the local population and the size of the islands. It should also be noted that the actual figures might be far higher.

The main demand of the locals is for the aforementioned numbers to be reduced and for no further flows to be allowed or at least the current flows to be efficiently managed. The Greek government — instead of taking the appropriate measures to address the problem — has decided to reinforce the current infrastructure by creating new detention centers, in order to replace the uncontrolled open-air camps. This decision has not been welcomed by the local population at all, who interpret it as a way to postpone the breaking point of the crisis and something that will not solve the problem whatsoever.

Angry Public Reaction to New Centers and Violent Police Crackdown

Work on the detention centers was scheduled to start early this week, but the local population pre-announced opposition and several people have mobilized to block any such process. This reaction was expected and the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection sent numerous riot police units in the two islands in order to prevent any disruption to the scheduled work and manage the situation. This development triggered even more public reaction, however, prompting hundreds of citizens to protest on the roads and express their disapproval. General strikes have also been pre-announced as a coordinated response to the government plans.

Greek Citizens Protest Inadequate Response

Since February 24, several acts of protest have been taking place in the islands of Chios and Lesbos. Hundreds of citizens are demonstrating on a daily basis, with the most notable action so far being reported in the ports of the islands or in the proximity of the designated detention center sites. The local people are mostly trying to block the deployment of equipment and staff via road closure; they are also reacting intensely to the presence of riot police forces that have been brought to the island from across the country.

In the previous few days, clashes between the protestors and the police forces have been reported recurrently. In addition to the port areas of the two islands, violence has erupted in Karava and Mantamados in Lesbos, the main road leading to the new detention center of the island. The riot police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and several instances of excessive and unjustified police force have been mentioned. Local sources have also published footage with riot police personnel damaging wantonly residents’ vehicles, parked in the area; these videos have caused public discontent and provoked further anger.

The ensuing public reaction has also been rather extreme; on February 26, citizens of Chios identified the hotels where some of the police personnel deployed to the island were staying. In an unexpected move, a crowd of protestors broke into the rooms of the police staff and violently attacked them. Those unprecedented incidents indicate the scope of the problem in these islands and the public discomfort that has been piling up for over five years now.

In the last few days, over 40 policemen and an unconfirmed number of at least ten citizens participating in the protests have been injured; in addition, over ten residents are being investigated by the police with at least one of them having been arrested following the aforementioned violent attacks.

Government Efforts to Limit the Tension and Find a Political Solution

The current political sentiment in Greece is far from collaborative. The opposition representatives, all across the political spectrum, are harshly criticizing the government; from left-wing parties condemning the police repression and the maltreatment both of the locals and the asylum-seekers to far-right politicians who are accusing the government of an inability to manage the flows and demanding that it proceed to the immediate deportation of all the people who have unlawfully entered the Greek territory. The public in the islands and in the mainland is also strongly opposing the government moves so far, while the municipal authorities of the affected islands are openly turning against the current administration, stressing that the lack of a responsible policy on the state level has created a dead-end.

Under these circumstances, the Greek government gave in to one of the islanders’ demands, and, in a move of goodwill, the riot police forces will be withdrawing from the islands with immediate effect. Meetings have also been scheduled during the day with representatives of the municipal authorities of the affected Aegean islands. The government has vowed at the beginning of February to provide a prompt solution to the ever-growing problem, however, the steps taken so far do not point in this direction. The situation is likely to remain tense and difficult to manage unless the Greek administration is willing to face the actual causes that have been fueling the grievances of the islands’ populations for such a long time now.