Greece opens migrant 'hotspot' centers, putting islanders on edge

Inhabitants of Greek islands like Kos say that the new migrant processing centers endanger tourism. European leaders are putting heavy pressure on Greece to stanch the flow of migrants crossing from Turkey.

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
A view of the migrant registration center on the Greek island of Leros on Tuesday.

The key to tackling Europe’s unprecedented refugee crisis lies on a scrubby patch of land, surrounded by rocky crags and pine trees, on this Greek island.

It is here, on a disused army base near the village of Pyli, that the European Union wants Greece to build one of five new migration centers, known as "hotspots." The centers, placed on a chain of Aegean islands which lie just a few miles from the coast of Turkey, are meant to enable genuine refugees from places like Syria to be resettled in the EU, while economic migrants from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh would be sent home.

But on Kos, the planned hotspot has sparked fierce resistance from locals, who fret that the migrant camp will damage the image of the island and harm tourism. They also worry about large numbers of young male refugees being allowed to roam the local area at will.

“This is not about racism; it is about the security of our homes and our children. At the moment the kids can walk to school on their own but we worry that that will all change,” says Anna Karagiannis Chatzisevastou, a mother of five. “We do feel very sorry for the refugees but we also worry about terrorism. Greeks are a very hospitable people but this situation has made us feel afraid. The country is already in a horrible economic crisis. It cannot cope.”

'Oxi' to refugee centers

The Greek government is under pressure from Brussels to implement a more orderly response to the Mediterranean’s gravest crisis since World War II. On Monday it announced that four of the five hotspots are now operational; the Kos site is expected to become the fifth by Sunday. 

In a report released last week, the European Commission said that Greece’s progress in building the hotspot on Kos, as well as those on the islands of Chios, Samos, and Leros, had been painfully slow. The commission criticized “shortcomings in infrastructure, staffing and coordination.”

That's due in no small part to the opposition of locals. At a protest camp near the site, a large banner saying “Oxi” – Greek for “No” – to the half-built refugee center hangs next to a Greek flag.

On a dusty lane that leads towards the army base, local farmers have dumped an enormous boulder, blocking access. Last week, a rudimentary explosive device was set off outside a police station on the island.

And on Sunday, around 1,000 locals marched to the perimeter of the site, calling for the project to be aborted. The protest was initially peaceful but when a group of islanders surged through the police lines, officers in riot gear fired stun grenades and canisters of tear gas. The crowd quickly dispersed.

“This is a tourist island and we are worried that the hotspot will scare off visitors,” said Evangelia Stakkou, a supermarket worker who has helped to man the protest camp since December. “It would be better if the hotspots were built in Turkey – then refugees would not have to risk their lives crossing the sea.”

So far this year, more than 350 refugees and migrants have drowned on the crossing from Turkey, including women, children, and babies.

Since Jan. 1, more than 74,000 have arrived on the Greek islands – an average of 2,000 a day – with numbers expected to rise further once the weather improves in the spring. Last summer, up to 1,000 migrants and refugees arrived on Kos every day, crossing by boat from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, which is clearly visible just across the strait.

Pressure from Brussels

Posters demanding that the project be canceled are stuck to palm trees, taverna windows and doorways all over the island.

Islanders fear that the center will become a vast holding camp for economic migrants whose home countries may not accept their repatriation and who could languish for weeks or months.

Kos is Greece’s third-most visited island after Crete and Rhodes. Tourism is by far the biggest earner, with two million visitors arriving each summer, most of them from northern Europe.

“We face the prospect of the total collapse of the local economy if the center is built,” says David Gerasklis, the deputy mayor. “We want to convince the Greek government that the island is an exception, that it should have a much smaller center where migrants and refugees would be processed in less than 48 hours and then sent off to Athens.”

Brussels is pressing the Greek authorities to complete the hotspots as soon as possible. EU hopes this system would promptly send back economic migrants and avert a repeat of last year's chaotic flood of asylum seekers into the rest of Europe. Under such a scenario, neighboring Macedonia is likely to close its border, turning Greece into a vast holding center for the dispossessed and desperate fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Other countries in the EU could then follow suit, threatening the bloc’s Schengen system of passport-free travel. On Friday, Austria’s foreign minister warned Macedonia that it should be ready to close its border to refugees and migrants, with the Austrians saying that they may also start turning refugees away in coming months.

'A very difficult year'

Sitting in his office overlooking the pretty port of Kos Town, Mr. Gerasklis is pessimistic about the next 12 months.

He points to the fact that Brussels has unveiled plans to send back to Greece tens of thousands of migrants who reached EU countries, under a rule known as the Dublin regulation which states that they should have applied for asylum in the first EU country they reached.

“I think we are going to have 2 million refugees coming to this country in 2016, including the migrants who may be repatriated from elsewhere in Europe. It’s going to be a very difficult year for the whole of Greece, not just Kos,” he says.

But not all of Kos’s 30,000 people are opposed to the refugee center.

“In my opinion we need the hotspot,” says Sevi Laumzis, who has a travel agency in Kos Town, the island’s main settlement, just a few hundred yards from an imposing castle built by the Knights of St. John 600 years ago. 

“We can’t stop the refugees,” she says. “If we don’t have the hotspot we will have the same situation as last summer – thousands of them sleeping [on the streets], right in front of the tourists. We have to help these people.”

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