The Greek government is set to start building a new detention centre for asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos, a project that has been met with widespread anger from the local population. Violent clashes between opponents to the project and riot police sent to guard the construction site occurred during demonstrations held on February 25. 

This new conflict is taking place against a tense backdrop on the island, which has become a temporary home to tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers since 2015.  While local people still show support for the migrants, they say they are fed up with the government, which they accuse of doing nothing to relieve the pressure on the island and resettle newcomers elsewhere. 

More than 21,000 migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa are currently trapped on the Greek island, according to official figures. 

The migrants arrived on the island, home to roughly 85,000 inhabitants, by travelling the 15 kilometres from the Turkish shores in flimsy, inflatable boats.

Volunteers set up aid organisations to help the migrants starting in 2015, when the war in Syria, and other factors, pushed just over a million people to the shores of Lesbos. Most of those people eventually left Lesbos to continue on their journey to continental Europe. 

The EU and Turkey signed a series of agreements and the situation got much worse for the asylum seekers who landed in Lesbos with the hopes of continuing on to Europe. New regulations meant that asylum seekers were forced to stay on the island until their asylum claims were processed. They crowded into three makeshift camps-- Moria, Kara Tebe and Pikpa-- and lived there under terrible conditions. Moria camp, home to around 20,000 people, only has one shower per 506 people, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
Protesters and riot police clash in this video filmed on the Greek island of Lesbos on February 25, 2020. Though the protests began peacefully, they descended into violent clashes, resulting in several dozen wounded people. 

 

“Before we start in on any new plans, we need to deal with the existing camps”

Considering this already difficult situation, it is not surprising that quite a few locals were angry when the government announced in November 2019 that it was planning on building a new detention centre.  

It’s meant to house around 5,000 migrants, but both the conditions of the detention and the ultimate aim of this centre remain vague, says Katerina Vati, a protestor who documented the clashes with police on her Facebook page.

In this video posted on February 25, 2020, protester Katerina Vati explains what’s going on in the midst of clashes between the police and locals. 
 
The government has decided to build new, enclosed structures on the islands of Chios and Lesbos. The construction site in Lesbos is near the village of Mantamados, so that’s where a group of us locals gathered to protest. There were a large number of riot police and they were extremely violent. They set off lots of tear gas canisters. 

A group of riot police break a car windscreen in this video posted by Katerina Vati.
 
This prison is meant to hold 5,000 people who won’t be allowed to leave. What on earth kind of place is that? Where do human rights factor into all of this? Before we start in on any new plans, we need to deal with the existing camps and improve the processing of asylum applications because people can’t be stuck here indefinitely. 

In the camp, there is a lot of illness, sexual assault and psychological violence. It’s an untenable situation that we’ve been speaking out against since 2015. 

Locals try to help. We formed teams to deliver food, medicine and clothing. Sometimes we do laundry for them. The government, Europe and the entire world hasn’t taken responsibility for this crisis. We are forced to act alone. 

Our economy is also suffering. In my village, Molivos, we essentially live off of tourism. This past year, 80% of visitors cancelled their trips. 

In conclusion, we feel hopeless because our government wants to transform our island into a giant prison for these people, even though they promised to help reduce the numbers of people in these already overcrowded camps and distribute asylum seekers to centres around the country.

While Vati feels compassion for the thousands of migrants in Lesbos, that doesn’t seem to be the case for all protesters. Several migrants who spoke to our sister site InfoMigrants said that they were afraid that the protesters were going to attack them. "In mid-February, a group of [anti-migrant] protesters tried to attack Kartibi camp, which is 40 minutes on foot from Moria,” says Mohammad, a Palestinian who is currently living in Moria camp. Ali, another Palestinian migrant, says that “for the past six months, it’s become dangerous at night” because of a group of English-speakers who ambush and assault migrants walking on the road from town to the camp. In order to protect themselves, migrants put large rocks on the main route between Moria camp and the town (also named Moria), which is located two kilometres away. 

According to the AFP, the protest was led by several groups of Lesbos shopkeepers and unions close to the Greek communist party, who recently called for a general strike. Instead of a detention centre, the protesters are calling for the construction of smaller registration centres that would each serve around 1,000 people.

"The refugees played no part in this conflict”

Eric Kempson, a British man who lives in Lesbos and who is very active in migrant aid groups, says that locals are angry at the government, not the migrants. 

 
Every day I go to Moria and work alongside migrants. The refuges played no part in this conflict. It’s a conflict between residents and the government, which is punishing the islands because they refuse to have a detention centre built.

It’s true that there are problems in the camp and sometimes even crimes, but considering the fact that 20,000 people are crammed into such a tiny space, I think that Lesbos is doing incredibly well. The island should be a source of inspiration for the rest of Europe.