ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s government hoped to defuse tensions after protests over plans for new migrant camps on two of its islands Wednesday turned into violent clashes between police and local residents, some armed with Molotov cocktails and shotguns.
Hundreds of residents attacked police officers guarding the sites of the future detention camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios. A large crowd later laid siege for hours to a Lesbos army camp where riot-control squads were billeted.
Dozens of police officers were injured during the unrest, and the Greek government’s spokesman said many of the riot police deployed to the islands this week would be pulled out.
Government migration officials have vowed to press ahead with plans to replace overcrowded and squalid migrant camps with more restrictive detention centers. But local officials and residents oppose the plans, with many demanding that no migrants should remain on the islands.
Local authorities declared a 24-hour strike and staged large protest rallies that devolved into the violence Wednesday. Greek officials said 43 police officers were injured on Lesbos, which sees the most arrivals as migrants cross the sea from nearby Turkey. Two had leg wounds from shotgun blasts, officials said.
Another nine officers were injured on Chios, where an angry mob burst into a hotel used by riot police, beat up officers resting in their rooms and threw out their belongings.
One man was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack and another was being sought. Police said 10 protesters were injured on both islands.
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.
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,” Petsas told private broadcaster Alpha TV. “Some of those that were sent from Athens will return, and the rest will stay in place.”
But 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. H
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, 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.
Regional administration head Costas Moutzouris — who plans to attend the talks with the prime minister Thursday — berated the government for using police to cracl dpwm 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 towards 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.