Greece to overhaul migrant camps and enforce 'air-tight' borders

Athens (AFP) - Greece announced a plan Wednesday to massively overhaul its overcrowded migrant camps on islands facing Turkey and make borders "air-tight" against a feared new surge of asylum-seekers.

"Decongesting the islands is a priority at this stage," the government's special coordinator for migration Alkiviadis Stefanis, a former army general and chief of staff, told a news conference.

"These actions are designed to show our determination in dealing with the migrant-refugee crisis," said Stefanis, who is also deputy defence minister.

The government will hire 400 additional guards for the land border with Turkey and 800 for the islands, he said, adding that the measures were aimed at "rendering migrant entry points air-tight".

Three camps are to be closed, on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, which currently house more than 27,000 people in terrible conditions and which have been repeatedly castigated by rights groups. They have a nominal capacity of just 4,500.

The Greek government said it would replace the camps with three new closed facilities for identification, relocation and deportation with a capacity of at least 5,000 people each, which could be stretched to 7,000.

Smaller camps on the islands of Kos and Leros are also to be remodelled along these lines and enlarged, Stefanis said.

Instead of being allowed to move freely in and out of the camps, asylum-seekers will now be locked up until they are granted refugee status and relocated to the mainland, or they are rejected and sent back to Turkey, officials said.

The European Commission, a spokeswoman told AFP, "welcomes concrete steps... to improve the situation on the islands" as long as they were "in line with the applicable human rights standards".

In the new camps, asylum-seekers will stay in containers and have access to refectories, schools and places of worship, Stefanis said.

The government has vowed to relocate 20,000 asylum-seekers to camps on the mainland by early 2020.

- Better health facilities -

Fifteen thousand will stay in camps and 5,000 in hotels, Stefanis said.

Four years after the 2015 refugee crisis, Greece has again become a key point of entry for asylum-seekers to Europe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to "open the gates" for millions of migrants and refugees if the EU criticised his offensive against Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria and withheld aid.

According to Greek government figures, there are over 37,000 asylum-seekers on the islands, and hundreds arrive daily, taking advantage of mild weather conditions.

The International Organization for Migration says an additional 22,000 people are in camps on the mainland that are nearly full or already past capacity.

The new conservative government which came to power in July has already passed a law stiffening asylum requirements for migrants, which rights groups have criticised as undermining the interests of vulnerable asylum-seekers.

Stefanis on Wednesday also said new criteria would be issued for the operations of NGO groups helping migrants.

"Only those (NGOs) that meet the requirements will stay and continue to operate in the country," the migration coordinator said.

The government will also improve health facilities in areas receiving asylum-seekers, and set aside a fund of 50 million euros ($55 million) for works in municipalities that agree to cooperate.

There have been protests in several towns in northern Greece in recent weeks to block attempted relocations of asylum-seekers.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday accused the European Union of treating countries on the bloc's external frontiers as convenient places to "park" migrants.

"It cannot go on like this," Mitsotakis told German newspaper Handelsblatt.

"Europe regards arrival countries such as Greece as a convenient parking spot for refugees and migrants. Is that European solidarity? No!"

Mitsotakis insists that most new arrivals to Greece are "economic migrants" from Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa rather than refugees from war-wracked Syria.

The spokeswoman for the European Commission said the EU's executive has worked "tirelessly" with Greece to help improve the situation on the islands and contributed more than 2.2 billion euros to support the hosting of asylum-seekers.