Thousands of Greek islanders protest against migrant camps

Lesbos Island (Greece) (AFP) - Thousands of residents on Greek islands hosting large migrant camps kicked off a day of protests on Wednesday, demanding the immediate removal of asylum seekers.

The islanders of Lesbos, Samos and Chios staged a general strike, shutting down shops and public services and rallying in central squares, many waving Greek flags.

Packing the waterfront of Lesbos harbour, the protesters chanted: "Our islands are not prisons. Shut down all the camps now."

"Soon we will be a minority on our own island," said Vassiliki Ververi, a Lesbos resident.

"It's Greece and the islands that are paying the price of migration," she told AFP.

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who was appointed to the post last week, said local anger was "justified".

"The burden borne by the islanders is disproportionate," Mitarachi, who represents the island of Chios in parliament, said in a statement.

The largest camp of Moria on Lesbos island, with a capacity for 2,840 people, hosts more than 19,000 asylum seekers.

Samos and Chios each have 7,500 and around 5,000 asylum seekers in camps respectively built to handle 650 and 1,000 persons.

Dozens more arrive daily from neighbouring Turkey.

Asylum seekers "should be shared out across Greece," 72-year-old Lesbos pensioner Efstratios Peppas told AFP.

"And Europe must assume its responsibilities. It too must take migrants," he said.

"You can't walk alone outside after dark, people get stabbed," Peppas said.

Rights groups and medical charities have repeatedly criticised the living conditions at the camps.

The government announced plans in November to build larger camps on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, which currently host a total of nearly 42,000 migrants and refugees and where outbreaks of violence are frequent.

Two young asylum seekers have been fatally stabbed in brawls at the Moria camp this month. An 18-year-old Afghan girl was also seriously injured in a knife attack this week and remains in hospital.

And three asylum seekers in Greek custody have committed suicide in recent weeks.

"We demand the immediate shutdown of Moria," read a banner carried in the Lesbos demonstration.

Greece's new conservative government, which has announced tougher asylum laws and hired additional border guards, vows to expel all asylum seekers who are not entitled to protection.

It also reinstated the migration ministry, six months after scrapping it.

But the new camp plans have been strongly opposed by island officials, who want smaller facilities after hosting thousands of asylum seekers for the past five years.

"They need to leave. It's not that we don't like them. They live in miserable conditions. It's tough for them and for us too," said Zoi Yannaka, who was part of a separate Communist party demonstration on Lesbos.

Greece last year again became the main entry into Europe for migrants and refugees, many fleeing war or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Syria.

The UN refugee agency in 2019 recorded more than 59,000 arrivals by sea and more than 14,000 via the land border with Turkey.

Already more than 3,000 have arrived so far this year.

Only a fraction are allowed passage to the Greek mainland while the rest spend months in the camps, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

On Tuesday, 17 human rights organisations warned the Greek government of a rising "climate of discrimination and xenophobia" towards asylum seekers, who they said also face "serious consequences to their well-being and public health".