LESBOS, GREECE - Signaling a shift in policy, Greece’s government said Monday it would accelerate efforts to move thousands of refugees and migrants from Aegean Sea islands to the mainland following a deadly fire at the country’s largest camp on the island of Lesbos.
The decision was announced after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a four-hour cabinet meeting, a day after a fire at the Moria camp left one asylum-seeker dead and 17 injured.
More than 12,000 people — more than four times the site’s capacity — are currently housed in the camp and just outside its perimeter following a spike in migrant arrivals over the summer.
Police said the fire gutted eight container homes in the camp and triggered rioting by camp residents who were dispersed by riot police using stun grenades. No sign of arson was found at the site — contradicting earlier statements by authorities on the island who said the fires may have been started deliberately by camp dwellers.
Government officials unveiled plans Monday to evenly distribute camps nationally in all 13 regional authorities, mostly on the mainland, replacing a three-year-old practice of containing new arrivals on Lesbos and four other eastern islands facing the Turkish coast.
“This is a national crisis and it must be addressed with a spirit of responsibility,” said Eleftherios Oikonomou, a deputy public order minister. “The number of people on the islands will be reduced in an orderly way that is proportionate and involves the 13 regional authorities.”
Other decisions include the creation of detention centers for migrants who do not have the right to apply for asylum, high-level contacts between the Greek and Turkish governments to restart deportations to Turkey, and continued military support for coast guard patrols in the eastern Aegean.
The containment policy on the Greek islands was part of measures under a 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey to fight illegal immigration into Europe.
But Mina Andreeva, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said the EU executive supported the latest Greek measure and was ready to provide additional support. She described the fire on Lesbos as a “truly tragic event.”
The interior ministers of France and Germany are due to visit Greece and Turkey this week with outgoing EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a Greek.
In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government backed Greek efforts to increase the number of migrant deportations to Turkey.