Lesbos (Greece) (AFP) – Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday defended a controversial EU-Turkey migration agreement whilst trying to assuage anger on the Greek island of Lesbos, home to nearly 9,000 refugees and migrants.
“If we did not have this framework, things would be three times as bad,” Tsipras said during a visit to the island, referring to a March 2016 deal that drastically limited arrivals from Turkey.
“Three years ago we had 4,000-5,000 people arriving every day,” he said, whilst admitting that conditions were “very difficult for migrants and residents”.
Lesbos has a population of around 86,000 and has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees pass through on their way to Europe.
Tsipras’ arrival to the island was greeted with a general business shutdown in protest at the migration crisis, in addition to sales tax increases from June which locals say will diminish tourism revenue.
Thousands of islanders held a protest during his speech, many of them from the village of Moria, where the country’s most overcrowded camp is located.
“Moria cannot live under threat,” read a protest banner. “Solve the issue now,” said another.
Businesses were also shuttered in protest on the neighbouring island of Chios, which harbours 1,800 migrants and refugees.
Earlier on Thursday, Doctors Without Borders warned that Lesbos was “reaching breaking point”.
“With around 500 new people reaching Lesvos every week – the overcrowding, as well as increased demand for healthcare and other services, are pushing the camp to a breaking point,” the NGO said.
More than 16,000 migrants are still languishing in camps on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos until their asylum claims can be processed. This has fuelled despair and sparked protests and outbreaks of violence.
In April, several people where injured on Lesbos when far-right militants attacked migrants staging a sit-in protest on the island’s main square.
Tsipras said asylum services would receive additional staff to speed up procedures, and that Greece would not tolerate “murderous” attacks on refugees.
“We will not allow the political heirs of Nazism to stain our flag,” he said.
Greece, a country of 11 million people, recorded 58,661 asylum applications last year, making it the member state with the highest number of asylum seekers per capita, according to official data.
The government ordered asylum seekers to remain on the Aegean islands while their asylum applications are being processed, overturning a court decision that would have allowed them to move around.