Demonstrators gathered Thursday for a fourth consecutive day on the eastern Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to protest government plans to build new migrant detention centers.
Greece's Aegean Sea islands are a main entry point for migrants seeking better lives in the European Union. Managing the flow of people – and growing discontent among island residents – has become the main challenge for the center-right government of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Mr. Mitsotakis invited regional and local officials for talks in Athens on Thursday.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said police showed “unprecedented restraint” during the clashes and riot squad members would be recalled once preparatory work was completed on the proposed detention center construction sites.
“The first phase was completed on Lesbos today and will be completed tomorrow on Chios, and police will have no reason to stay there,” Mr. Petsas told private broadcaster Alpha TV. “Some of those that were sent from Athens will return, and the rest will stay in place.”
He insisted that the planned centers would be built.
“The plan will go ahead and we need to see how it can be done best. It’s the only plan we have on the table,” he said.
Local authorities declared a 24-hour strike and staged large protest rallies Wednesday on Lesbos and Chios. Shops and services were shut on Lesbos as workers extended an initial 24-hour strike into a second day as part of the protests.
The mayors of Lesbos, Chios, and the nearby island of Samos were scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens to discuss the situation.
Lesbos, and to a lesser extent Chios, annually receive tens of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The migrants cross from the nearby Turkish coast in small, unseaworthy boats provided by smuggling gangs.
Under a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey, migrants reaching the islands must stay there until their asylum requests are processed – and if these are rejected they must be taken back by Turkey.
But delays in the asylum process, coupled with increased migrant flows, have placed massive strains on the system and led to a sharp deterioration of living conditions in existing camps whose populations burgeoned – despite Greek authorities moving people judged as vulnerable to the mainland. Furthermore, returns to Turkey have been negligible.
Lesbos, with a permanent population of 85,000, now has more than 21,000 migrants according to the latest official data available Wednesday.
Island residents and local authorities say they want all asylum seekers to be moved to the mainland. They oppose construction of the new facilities and want the old ones shut down.
On Wednesday, protests degenerated into violence, with hundreds of demonstrators attacking police guarding the building sites of future migrant detention camps on Chios and Lesbos. A crowd also laid siege for hours to a Lesbos army camp where riot squads were staying.
Officials have said 43 police officers were injured in violence in Lesbos, and another nine in Chios, where a mob burst into a hotel being used by riot police and beat officers resting in their rooms.
The government has said it will pull out many of the riot police deployed to the islands earlier this week. But it has insisted its plan to tackle migration, including building new detention centers, speeding up asylum procedures and deportations, and beefing up border controls, will go ahead.
"It is the only plan that can be implemented," Mr. Mitsotakis said in opening remarks during a Cabinet meeting Thursday.
The prime minister condemned attacks against police officers, saying those who participated in the violence "will be located and will answer for their actions."
"At the same time however, incidents of excessive violence by the police will be investigated," Mr. Mitsotakis said. "Serious accusations have been made, we have a duty to investigate them."
Mr. Mitsotakis said he had ordered a "significant increase" in the number of patrol boats and patrols given what he called an increased public health risk from the new coronavirus, as new arrivals include people from Iran, where cases of the virus have increased significantly in recent days, and people who had crossed through Afghanistan.
Regional administration head Costas Moutzouris – who plans to attend the talks with the prime minister on Thursday – berated the government for using police to crack down on the protesters but also appealed for calm from islanders.
"The people of Lesbos and Chios served for five years as a breakwater against the waves of immigration," he said. “The government should be more sensitive toward them and the rest of Greece should show more understanding.”
Islanders said they would hold another 24-hour strike Thursday.
Nearly 60,000 migrants and refugees arrived on Greek islands last year, almost double the number recorded in 2018, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.