By Alkis Konstantinidis
ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece opened a new holding camp for migrants on Saturday on the island of Samos, close to Turkey, and said other new facilities would follow in coming months as it tightens migration policy.
The minister opening the camp said it would offer “lost dignity” to those seeking protection. Aid groups said the new facility, which will house asylum seekers and people to be deported, looked more like a jail with its fence topped by barbed wire.
The Mediterranean country was at the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 and 2016 when a million refugees fleeing war and poverty from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived, mainly via Turkey.
The number of arrivals has fallen since then, but with thousands of asylum-seekers still stranded in Greece, the conservative government that took power in 2019 has toughened its stance on migration.
It has built a 40 km (25 miles) fence in the Evros region on the Turkish border and launched a European Union-wide tender this summer to build two facilities on Samos and the Lesbos islands to replace previously overcrowded camps.
“We have created a modern and safe new closed, controlled access centre … that will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said inaugurating the new camp.
About 450 asylum-seekers out of 7,500 who lived at another camp will move to the new facility on Monday.
Mitarachi said the new camp, which can accommodate 3,000 people, would also hold illegal migrants to be returned or deported. He said two other centres would be ready on the islands of Kos and Leros in a few months.
“For us it’s a jail,” Iorgos Karagiannis, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said of the new camp. “It’s a declaration of harmful policies that are preferred by EU leaders rather than the care, the induction and ensured asylum.”
Greece has deported, returned and relocated thousands of migrants and refugees who have been stranded for years, mainly on its outlying islands in the Aegean Sea.
The number of asylum-seekers was 42,000 in August, about half the number a year ago, migration ministry data showed.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has fuelled fears of a new wave of refugees. Greece says it will not allow a replay of the 2015 migrant crisis and wants a joint European response.
(Reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis; Writing by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Edmund Blair).