Hundreds of protesters on the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday threw stones at police who responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, an AFP photographer said, on a second day of demonstrations against the construction of new migrant camps.
“You’re going to die here,” one protester shouted at police, as others screamed obscenities at them.
Ten protesters and dozens of police officers were lightly injured in the daylong clashes in Mantamados, a village near a construction site for a camp to house 7,000 migrants, a police source said.
“We are in a wartime situation,” local priest Father Stratis told AFP. “(The police) have the weapons, we have our heart and soul.”
A general strike was observed on Lesbos, Chios and Samos — the islands with the largest migrant populations — as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for calm amid mounting criticism from the opposition.
Some 2,000 people demonstrated on Chios, where a group later broke into a hotel where riot police are staying, injuring eight of them, a police spokesman told AFP.
After weeks of fruitless talks with island officials on where to build the new facilities, the government on Monday secretly shipped construction machinery and hundreds of riot police to Lesbos and Chios, causing outrage.
Opposition parties say the move is undemocratic and regional officials called it a “barbaric” attempt to “forcefully turn Lesbos and Chios into prisons”.
Dozens of people have been hurt on both sides since the incidents erupted late on Monday.
“I want to appeal for calmer tempers,” Mitsotakis said during a visit to the northern port of Alexandroupolis.
“Construction on the new facilities has already begun,” Mitsotakis, said adding that the new camps are “very far from urban areas”.
Local authorities have rejected the government’s plans to build the new camps to replace currently overcrowded facilities where asylum-seekers live in dire conditions.
More than 38,000 migrants, most of whom arrived from nearby Turkey, are crowded into camps on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos despite an official capacity of just 6,200.
The islanders, on the forefront of the migration crisis for the past five years, have long complained that the presence of thousands of asylum seekers threatens safety and public health.
“We are also fighting for those who want to go to a better place. We want them to leave” the squalid camps, Father Stratis said.
“We will embrace war refugees, but the criminals should go back.”
The islanders say they will only accept small facilities where asylum-seekers are screened and then either moved to the mainland or sent back to Turkey outright.
The conservative government which came to power in July has announced that the camps on Lesbos, Samos and Chios will be shut down this year, to be replaced with new facilities that are to be operational by mid-2020.
On Leros and Kos, existing facilities are to be revamped and expanded.
The government says that the new camps, where entry and exit will be tightly controlled, will actually address most of the islanders’ concerns by ending a currently “chaotic” situation.
“We are creating 20,000 places of hospitality on the islands when today there are over 42,000,” migration minister Notis Mitarachi told Skai radio.
“I would be irresponsible if I allowed the islands to remain undefended in the face of migration flows.”
“We ask residents to trust us,” he said.
Mitsotakis’ administration is under increasing pressure to address the issue before spring, when new arrivals from Turkey are expected to increase.
The state had already angered the islanders earlier this month by announcing that land could be requisitioned for a three-year period to build the new facilities.
“There is a limit to our patience,” said one villager, Stratos Paspalas, a retired butcher. “They requisition areas and bring riot police, tear gas people. Are we at war?”