February 17, 2020

Increasingly overcrowded camps for asylum seekers have led to heightened tensions on Greece’s Aegean Islands. Local inhabitants and refugees have held large protests on the islands and in Athens in early 2020. The government’s plans to build larger, closed facilities on the islands by mid-2020 is unlikely to completely satisfy the issues with the camps, leading to likely continued unrest in the medium term.


Overcrowded Camps

Aerial view of Moria refugee camp.

In 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached a deal to respond to the ongoing Refugee Crisis; Greece would process asylum claims on the Aegean Islands, and Turkey would accept those who were unsuccessful. Developments in the Middle East and tougher Turkish immigration policies led to an influx of arrivals in the second half of 2019 just as a new Greek government took office, determined to send more migrants back to Turkey. As a result, an estimated 42,000 asylum seekers have found themselves on the Aegean islands waiting for the claims to be processed in camps with an overall capacity to hold 6,200. Camp Moria on Lesbos is the largest and most notorious of the overcrowded camps, holding an estimated 19,500 with a designed capacity of 2,800; there is similar overcrowding at smaller camps on the islands of Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos.


Increasing Tensions

The overflowing camps are a source of growing unrest among the local and migrant populations. Basic services and provisions at the centers cannot keep up with the number of asylum seekers using the facilities, resulting in increasingly unsafe and unhygienic camp conditions, which were the subject of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report in October 2019. Tensions peaked at Camp Moria Feb. 2 when large numbers of migrants began to protest the worsening conditions and demanded to be moved to the mainland, prompting security forces to respond using tear gas and baton charges. Locals have also been protesting the large numbers of migrants on the islands, demanding the government relocate the asylum seekers. Inhabitants of Lesbos, Samos, and Chios staged islandwide strikes and protests Jan. 22, and local officials led demonstrations outside government offices in Athens Feb. 13. There have also been reports of vigilante groups attacking asylum seekers and non-governmental organization workers; however, the options for the Greek government to address these demands are limited. Anti-migrant activist movements have been protesting any transfers of asylum seekers to the mainland, particularly around Thessaloniki, and Greece is receiving little support in resettling asylum seekers from other EU member states.


Inadequate Response

On Feb. 10, the government announced its plans to resolve overcrowding by building new centers on the islands, each with capacity for 20,000, planned to be operational by mid-2020. The new centers would be locked at night, to address some complaints of the locals, and use tougher asylum requirements to process applicants within three months, allowing the government to send greater numbers of migrants back to Turkey in a shorter space of time.

These plans fail to address the central concerns of both groups on the islands. Locals have criticized the plans, as the core policy of processing asylum claims on the islands remains unchanged and would enable greater numbers of migrants to be held on the islands. Additionally, human rights organizations have compared the camps to prisons for refugees and claim the three-month limit will jeopardize efforts for fair processing of asylum claims, concerns likely to be shared by migrants held in the facilities. In the interim, procedures at the current camps have become overwhelmed, leading to lengthy delays in processing asylum claims. As a result, the number of migrants at the already-overcapacity camps are likely to increase, further degrading camp conditions and raising tensions with the local populations. For these reasons, a continuation or possible increase in unrest regarding the refugee camps is likely in the medium term, which could manifest as demonstrations outside government offices in Athens or Thessaloniki or further protests on the islands, where security services have shown a willingness to respond with force.


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