In the face of the appalling living conditions in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, migrants protested and set fires on Sunday, causing the death of a woman and a child. Upon this, an emergency cabinet meeting organized by Greece's new center-right government decided to return 10,000 refugees to Turkey by the end of 2020. That would increase the rate from the "1,806 returned in 4.5 years under the previous [left-wing] Syriza government," the government statement said. The protesters were protesting the conditions in the overcrowded camp which has often been reported as the "worst refugee camp on earth" and demanded to be sent to the main Greek island. "The situation is tense," Lesbos Mayor Stratis Kytelis said on the incident.
About 12,000 migrants, most of them Afghans, are housed in a space designed for 3,000. Conditions are also similar in the Greek islands of Chios, Samos and Kos, which have all been overwhelmed by the refugee flow due to their geographical proximity to Turkey.
However, the Greek government does not allow them to go to the mainland as many central and eastern European countries have abruptly closed their borders to keep away migrants.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had previously announced more frequent naval patrols in the Aegean and plans to overhaul the asylum system.
Furthermore, 17 injured migrants, including two children, were transferred to a hospital on the island at Mytilene, the health ministry said yesterday. A plane helped extinguish Sunday's blaze, which reportedly started at a mobile vendor's stall. But police later fired tear gas to control an angry crowd that accused authorities of taking too long to respond to the incident. Tensions decreased in the camp by Monday, yet a strong police presence remained.
Last week, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) had prepared a report on the living conditions of refugees, highly criticizing Greece. It pointed out that the refugees in Greece were living in "inhumane conditions."
Lesbos, located some 9 kilometers away from the Turkish mainland, has been a key gateway into the European Union since the start of the bloc's migration crisis in 2015. At the height of the influx, some 5,000 migrants and refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, landed on the island's beaches on a daily basis.
The refugee influx came at a time when Greece declared its bankruptcy and in general, Greek islands were particularly affected by the country's debt crisis and subsequent austerity measures due to high living costs and the lack of many basic goods that needed to be transported from the mainland. The country's deteriorating image amid violent anti-austerity protests also took a heavy toll on tourism, the backbone of the islands' economy. Refugees arriving by thousands every day did not help to improve this image, and further deteriorated living conditions for the islanders.
Turkey and the EU signed a refugee deal in March 2016, to discourage irregular migration across the Aegean Sea by taking stricter measures against human traffickers. According to the agreement, refugees coming to Greece by unlawful means can be returned to Turkey.
Hundreds of migrants protest conditions on Lesbos
Meanwhile, around 1,000 migrants staged a fresh protest yesterday in Europe's largest migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, following the fires.
A procession made up mainly of women and children, with some elderly people, left Moria camp walking towards the port of Mytilene, with demonstrators shouting slogans. But a police road-block stopped them half-way to Mytilene.
The protesters carried placards in English reading "Moria is hell" and "Freedom," and carried a stretcher covered by a shroud probably to represent the woman killed in Sunday's fire at the camp.
"Moria is like a jungle, a cemetery," said one protester, Fazel Ahmad, from Afghanistan.
"I thought I was coming to a country that respects human rights, but what is happening in Moria has nothing to do with human rights," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The region's chief of police Eleftherios Douroudous tried to calm the angry crowd.
"You will be moved to other camps with better conditions in a month," he told them.
"Unaccompanied minors will also be moved to suitable conditions within October. I understand the difficulties," he added, appealing to them to be patient.
EU considering extra aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey
Meanwhile, Germany is in talks with other EU member states to provide additional support to Turkey for Syrian refugees, the country's deputy interior minister told parliament.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question released yesterday, Stephan Mayer reaffirmed Germany's commitment to the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal and signaled for further support to both Turkey and Greece to improve the implementation of the agreement.
"In spite of the considerable efforts made by the Turkish side, the number of refugees arriving at the Greek Islands is increasing," he said, commenting on the recent figures on the crossings in the Aegean Sea.
"Therefore the Federal Government is examining the possible further assistance to Turkey and coordinating this with the European partners," he added.