Greek police have been accused of teargassing migrants and asylum seekers, including families with young children, in a crackdown on protesters rallying against “dire” living conditions at overcrowded camps in Lesvos on Monday.
In an interview with Newsweek, Boris Cheshirkov, the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) spokesperson for Greece said he had heard reports of migrants and asylum seekers being teargassed during the protests.
Hundreds of people had been trying to make their way from the Moria refugee camp to the Mytilene city center on Monday to protest against the “dire living conditions” at the camp, while others rallied outside Kara Tepe, a smaller camp primarily reserved for refugee families.
In a Twitter post, journalist Franziska Grillmeier shared video of a father from Afghanistan and his two children, aged 11 and six, with the family claiming to have been teargassed by police.
“I didn’t come here for money, I came here for safety and for my kids to have an education,” the father says, according to a translation provided by Grillmeier, as his eldest child can be seen sitting on the grass and crying.
Both children, Grillmeier says, had been “heavily tear-gassed.”
Photos of the incident also appear to paint a desperate picture, with protesters reported to have been teargassed by police being carried away by volunteers providing medical assistance. Meanwhile, children can be seen running away from clusters of armed police wearing riot gear, while other photos appear to show protesters throwing smoke bombs as fires break out outside Kara Tepe camp.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, a member of the Hellenic Police told Newsweek that the only thing they could confirm was that police had tried to stop protesters from making their way to the the city center.
“Some people tried to go from the camp in Moria to downtown in Lesvos and some of them [wanted] to come in the center of the town,” the individual said. “The police forces were in the middle of the road…but some of them finally got to the route downtown.”
“Things now are under control,” the Hellenic Police member said, adding: “There’s no problem.”
Asked whether they could confirm whether tear gas was used in the incident, the individual declined to comment and said any other information police decide to release would be released in a statement.
Cheshirkov said that he was aware of reports of teargas being used, however, he could not confirm them.
Ultimately, Cheshirkov said, the majority of people arriving to the Greek islands by sea have been people fleeing desperate conditions in their home countries.
“Last year, in 2019, over 85 percent of some 60,000 people who came to Greece through the sea were coming from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, but also Iraq, Palestine, [the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and others who likely need protection,” he said. “And, in fact, if we look at the decisions that authorities took in 2019…on asylum applications, in more than half of the cases, for more than 17,000 people, they were granted international protection.”
Yet, Cheshirkov noted, for years, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have fled violence, poverty and persecution in their home countries to Greece only to face the desperate conditions at overcrowded refugee camps.
“All together on the five islands, there are now over 36,000 people staying there in a space for 5,400,” Cheshirkov said, referring to the five main reception centers across the Greek islands.
“At Moria, especially…there are thousands that are staying in small tents that are exposed to the elements. They have little access to power, to heating, to hot water. Washrooms and showers are not sufficient for the size of the population,” he said.
Those forced to stay at Moria also face months of waiting at the overcrowded camp for their immigration applications to be processed due to the “significant backlog” of cases, Cheshirkov said. “This has additionally taken a toll on the people as they wait because of the dire conditions and then the lengthy processing times.”
The UNHCR spokesperson has been among countless other immigration and human rights advocates to repeatedly call on the Greek government to prioritize the safety of migrant, asylum seekers and refugees and expedite an ongoing process to transfer people from the overcrowded islands to Greece’s mainland.
“The we’ve long called on the Greek authorities to move thousands of people to the mainland,” he said. “The situation has become critical. It’s very difficult.”
While there has been some effort to relocate migrant, asylum seekers and refugees to the mainland, Greece’s new government has also proposed measures aimed at cracking down on migration to the country, with the government announcing plans on Thursday to install a “floating wall” in the Aegean Sea to deter crossings from Turkey.
“States have a legitimate right to manage their borders,” Cheshirkov said. However, he asserted, “this should be done in what UNCHR calls a ‘protection-sensitive’ way.”
The vast majority of those who make the desperate journey to Greece’s shores, he said, “likely need international protection.” Instead of turning them away, Greece and neighboring European countries should be working to support the “disproportionately affected” Greek islands in addressing the influx of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
“This has to be supported by the rest of Europe,” he said. “That is critical.”