The situation remains tense on the Greek island of Lesbos following several protests and violent incidents over the last few days.The situation has worsened due to the incapacity of the official authorities to manage efficiently the migration challenge on the island.
The Migrant And Refugee Crisis On Lesbos
A large number of asylum seekers is entering the island, with 200 to 250 new arrivals per day. This indicates the sharp rise compared to the week from January 27 to February 2, when only 376 asylum seekers arrived in Lesbos according to the latest UNHCR report. The island does not have nearly sufficient infrastructure to cope with the crisis and accommodate the significant number of people that need to temporarily remain there until a solution is sorted out. The immigration and refugee problem is still a ticking bomb in the hands of the government, even though addressing and eventually solving this issue has been on the top of the agenda of the current Greek administration since its formation last summer.
Moria is a small village in the eastern part of Lesbos, with a population of just over a thousand residents. It is also the location of a major camp for refugees and asylum seekers. Moria camp has been a grave burden for Greek governments since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. The camp has an official capacity of up to 3,000 people, however, the current estimations indicate that the number of asylum seekers in the camp is far higher. Even though there are no official records of this number, the mayor of Mytilene has mentioned that over 20,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are currently in the area, while unofficial reports suggest that the actual number might be closer to 30,000. The vast majority of these people are of Afghan origin and are seeking to make their way to Europe through Greece.
Protesters From Moria Camp Set Fires
On the morning of February 3, approximately 2,000 asylum seekers organized a massive protest starting from Moria camp and heading to the capital of the island, Mytilene. Local authorities tried to stop the protestors halfway, close to the refugee camp of Kara Tepe. This was the crisis point for the riots, with many of the asylum seekers setting up fires near their route and the riot police using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Fires have been officially reported in three different spots, with at least one of them located close to the local electricity generation station. Amidst the unrest, approximately 500 of the protestors managed to reach the center of the capital and tried to set up a temporary camp in the vicinity of the Rouselleio Municipal Theater of Mytilene, but the police stopped them.
The Local Community Reacts In Anger
Following the protests, numerous Lesbos residents gathered to voice their disapproval about the worrying situation in the island. The residents demanded the immediate de-congestion of the refugee camps and the deployment of additional police forces alongside the permanent presence of riot police in several spots of Lesbos. Some residents have proceeded to “squatting” the building of the General Secretariat of the Aegean & Island Policy in a desperate effort to address the scope of the problem. The municipal administration stands together with the residents, as Northern Aegean Regional Governor Kostas Moutzouris and Mytilene Mayor Stratis Kytelis are turning to the government and insisting on urgent action before the situation becomes irreversible.
Even though control over access is supposed to be implemented when entering or exiting the Moria camp, there have been several complaints about asylum seekers leaving the camp and breaking into nearby houses. In this regard, there have been instances of locals,self-organizing and patrolling the surrounding area. It should be noted that on February 7, 2020, at least seven people were also arrested by local police, as they had allegedly been illegally targeting asylum seekers and NGO members in the context of these self-organized patrols. Charges have not been officially confirmed yet. In the meantime, left-wing groups are present on the island, often provoking the asylum seekers to take to the streets and protest. The tension and frequent clashes between radical groups on the island makes the already fragile situation on Lesbos even worse and reveals the political implications that are also present behind the humanitarian crisis.
Controlling The NGOs And Managing Asylum Seekers
Greek Minister of Migration & Asylum Notis Mitarachi recently addressed a crucial aspect in the light of the recent events that no Greek Government official has ever directly tackled before; the controversial role of some NGOs in the refugee and migration crisis. Undoubtedly many NGOs have contributed considerably to the management of the challenges posed by the high number of migrants entering the country. However it should also be highlighted that only 86 NGOs—of which 13 are foreign-based—have been officially registered with the former Hellenic Ministry of Migration Policy. This accounts for only a fraction of the hundreds of NGOs that have been active in the affected Aegean islands since 2015.
Mitarachi indicated that some NGOs may possibly be heavily involved in fomenting the riots, encouraging the asylum seekers to proceed even to violence under the pretext of demanding better living conditions. Mitarachi’s statement raises serious concerns, as the facts on the ground seem to confirming his claim, while the motives behind the action of these NGOs are still vague. In order to address this concern the Greek government has approved an urgent vote that attaches updated legislation to NGOs operating in Greece. The new bill obliges all NGOs to subscribe to an official registry, with full details of the individuals affiliated with the organization, in order that enhanced control and transparency to be achieved.
Mitarachi: Asylum Application Process Is Broken
Mitarachi has also highlighted the flaws of the current asylum application process for migrants arriving in Greece. As he recently stated, approximately 91% of the appeals that have been made by asylum seekers for a second review of their applications have been rejected. According to the current law, the appeal process can be quite time-consuming, and in most of the aforementioned cases, the asylum seekers have already moved to the mainland by the time their appeal is rejected. The Greek government is seeking to update the procedure in order the asylum applications and any potential appeals to be processed much faster, as per Mitarachi’s comments.
An Unconventional Threat
The events of last week should also raise serious concerns with regards to the internal security of Greece and the readiness of the national and regional mechanisms to cope with such unforeseen crises. The fact that a significant number of asylum seekers have been mobilized with the involvement of the third parties is also worrying indeed. The way the situation developed has proven that the local Greek forces were not ready to control the crowd and restore order in a timely manner. The successful attempt of the protestors to bypass the police forces—utilizing alternative rural routes—also indicates that the moves had been carefully planned and well-executed. The riots and fires close to the electricity generation station is probably the most worrying aspect of these incidents; protestors have managed to approach and put at immediate risk a part of the essential infrastructure of the island. If the fires had reached the electricity station, the consequences would have been unparalleled.
The Greek government and all authorities involved should seriously consider the possibility as well that the protesters in this case were not just mobilized by local entities—like illegitimate NGOs and opposition groups—but by an external actor. Considering that the Aegean islands are very heavily affected by the migration crisis and are located in an area of strategic significance for the Hellenic Defence Doctrine, it is clear that the current situation constitutes an unconventional threat for the country. It is a threat that the Greek side is not adequately prepared to face yet, and in a potential confrontation with Turkey over the long-term disputes between the two countries, it could prove to be catastrophic.