Greece has announced a catalogue of measures to deal with rising migration flows, including deporting 10,000 people by the end of next year and relocating thousands to the mainland from overcrowded island camps.
The plans were unveiled after a four-hour cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday, a day after a deadly fire in a packed camp housing refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos sparked protests.
In a statement, the recently elected government said it wants to return 10,000 migrants to Turkey by the end of 2020. That would increase the rate from the “1,805 returned in the 4.5 years under the previous (left-wing) Syriza government”, it added.
The government has already announced more naval patrols in the Aegean, closed centres for migrants refused asylum, and plans to overhaul the asylum system, the statement said.
The government’s plan includes distributing migrants and refugees across camps in 13 regional authorities of the country, mostly on the mainland, superseding a 2016 European Union deal with Turkey that prohibited new arrivals from leaving Lesbos and four other eastern islands facing the Turkish coast until their asylum claims are processed.
Under the practice, about 24,000 migrants and refugees have been stranded across five island camps in “horrendous” conditions, according to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity.
“We’re in a different context compared to 2015 … But this is by far the worst period we’ve been experiencing since the EU-Turkey deal was struck,” Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection Lefteris Economou told reporters on Monday.
The announcement comes a day after a fire gutted eight container homes in the Moria camp on Lesbos and triggered rioting by camp residents who accused emergency responders of taking too long to arrive.
Authorities dispersed the crowds, which included children, with tear gas.
Rights groups have blamed the blaze, which killed at least one woman, on the dire overcrowding at the camp, which currently houses about 13,000 people, despite having a capacity of just 3,000.
Reports on Sunday said that a child was also killed in the fire. Seventeen injured residents, including two children, were transferred to a hospital on the island after the blaze, the health ministry said on Monday.
“Many refugees are so sad, they are stressed, they fear an accident can happen again,” Farid, a young Afghan who did not give his last name, told AFP news agency.
Greece is hosting more than 70,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, who have fled their countries since 2015 and crossed over from neighbouring Turkey.
Around 10,000 people had landed on Lesbos in the past three months alone, according to the Greek government.
Several aid groups working at the island camps have called on the government to immediately evacuate all vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, who are currently living in Moria in unsanitary conditions with few toilets and showers and few doctors.
“We are constantly bracing ourselves for a new tragedy,” said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the International Rescue Committee’s Greece director.
Boris Cheshirkov, the UN refugee agency’s spokesman in Greece, has described the situation as “critical”.
The European Commission supports the plan to transfer those living in the island camps to the mainland and was ready to provide additional support, according to spokeswoman Mina Andreeva, who described the fire as a “truly tragic event”.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government backed Greek efforts to increase the number of migrant deportations to Turkey.