Hundreds of refugees moved to Greek mainland after violence at overcrowded island
Refugees and migrants wait to board buses at the port of Elefsina (Credit: AP)

Refugees and migrants wait to board buses at the port of Elefsina (Credit: AP)

The Greek government has transferred hundreds of refugees and migrants from overcrowded island camps to the Greek mainland as the country sees the largest resurgence in migrant arrivals since 2015. 

Some 700 migrants and refugees were moved from the island of Samos to the port of Elefsina near Athens on Tuesday after fires and fighting broke at the island's facilities last week. A further 120 were sent from Lesbos to Greece's main port, Pireaus, just outside the capital.

The transfers come as authorities struggle to deal with the recent surge in the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to reach the eastern Greek islands. According to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, there are currently some 33,700 people in the camps on the islands closest to Turkey.

With more than 10,000 people reaching the Greek islands in the last month alone, severe overcrowding is stretching facilities at the camps and leading to outbreaks of violence. In late September, one woman died after her tent caught fire at the Lesbos camp. 

The government-run refugee facility on Samos was designed to host around 600 people, but there are now close to 5000 migrants on the island, around 1000 of them children. Last week, fighting between migrant groups on Samos culminated in occupants setting fire to camp tents. Hundreds were left without shelter and forced to sleep in the street.

"Our focus was mainly on Samos because we want things there to calm down," stated Manos Logothetis, Greece's migration ministry secretary. Those moved to the mainland on Tuesday are thought to be some of the most vulnerable people from the island camps.

A further 300 people are expected to be taken from Samos to the mainland this week, with a further 2,000 to be transferred from the Greek islands next week. The government plans to transport a total of 20,000 migrants to the mainland by the end of 2020.

Despite growing numbers of refugees, Greece's ruling conservative party New Democracy has promised a tougher stance on immigration since they took power in July, saying they would take a hardline approach with those who did not qualify for asylum.

Refugees and migrants disembark from a ferry at the port of Elefsina (Credit: AP)

Refugees and migrants disembark from a ferry at the port of Elefsina (Credit: AP)

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called on EU leaders to reevaluate the body's asylum specifications, saying that his government would return economic migrants to Turkey, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said on Tuesday.

"If they give their money to traffickers hoping to permanently cross into Europe, they will only lose it," stated Petsas. "Even if they reach Greece, since they are not entitled to asylum, they will return to Turkey."

"They can no longer come to Greece and apply for asylum hoping that they stay here forever, as was the case with the previous government," Petsas said, in reference to the leftist administration of former prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

In the last two months, Athens has reported the highest level of migration to the country since the EU agreed with Turkey to prohibit movement over the Aegean Sea into Europe three-and-a-half years ago. The new Greek government has plans to deport 10,000 people by the end of 2020.

Source(s): AP