Lesbos on strike amid protests against migrant detention centres
A growing sense of crisis on the Greek islands which house thousands of migrants is leading to rising tensions.
Lesbos, Greece – The mood is uneasy in Mytilene; cafes and shops throughout the normally bustling city are shut. A general strike across the island has been organised in the wake of what they call heavy-handed tactics used by police against islanders on Tuesday, who were protesting at the construction of a detention centre for refugees in the north of Lesbos.
Units of riot police had been dispatched to the island on Monday night and arrived in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Tear gas was used against protesters who had blockaded the Mytilene’s port to prevent police and construction equipment from disembarking from the ferry. Clashes continued throughout the day in the north of the island near the town of Mantamados, where the detention centre is due to be built.
The Northern Aegean regional governor, Kostas Moutzouris, who announced the strike, spoke of his indignation at how the islanders had been treated.
“It is a day of shame for all, and mostly for those who ordered these actions,” he said. “It is a shame for the islanders to be beaten and to suffer from tear gas. Not even the military junta did these things.”
Images from Tuesday showed bloodied residents clashing with police, and at least two people were reportedly taken to hospital.
One bystander, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that police did nothing to help the highly volatile situation when a small group of angry protesters attacked him for trying to film at Mytilene port on Tuesday morning; however, he said, most came simply to have their voices heard.
“There were also a group of protesters who were perfectly peaceful. They had their hands locked in solidarity and were just chanting slogans against detention centres.”
The notorious Moria refugee camp on Lesbos is nearing a population of 20,000 in a space built for just 2,840. Islanders have expressed frustration at the ongoing crisis on Lesbos and a sense of being ignored and forgotten by Greek and European authorities.
The Greek government reportedly dispatched more riot police to Lesbos on Wednesday in anticipation of further unrest. On Tuesday night, students from Mantamados hung banners outside the local high school in protest against the riot police’s treatment of islanders.
Michael Trammer, a German journalist who was present at the protests in Lesbos on Tuesday morning and throughout the day told Al Jazeera that he expected tensions to rise.
“There are more police coming to the island, but also this means that there is also going to be more resistance by locals – because they feel like the central Athens government is overriding their decision on how this should be dealt with,” he said. “So I would expect more resistance and more police and an increasingly tense situation.”
In a statement, Stelios Petsas, a government spokesperson, insisted that health concerns such as coronavirus necessitated the urgent creation of closed centres on islands such as Lesbos. In July 2019, the Greek government rescinded access to healthcare for asylum seekers and undocumented people living in Greece.
Stephan Oberreit, MSF’s (Doctors without Borders) head of mission for Greece, who works in Moria camp, expressed solidarity with local residents and said detention centres were not a solution. “We stand beside the local communities who oppose the creation of closed camps on the islands,” he told Al Jazeera. He called instead for the immediate evacuation of refugees from the island camps.
As further protests are organised, the mood amongst islanders remains defiant.
“Closed because of treason,” read many signs hung outside businesses in Mytilene on Wednesday. It is evident that Lesbos residents will continue to make their anger over their treatment heard this week.
A request for comment put to the Ministry for Citizen Protection about the use of tear gas and force against protesters had not received a response by the time of publication.