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In these parts of Greece, crisis is building between residents and migrants

Amid growing unrest in Greece, the government there is temporarily halting construction of permanent detention centers for asylum seekers. Tens of thousands of migrants have been stranded in the country for more than four years, since its border with Macedonia was sealed and the European Union failed to find enough alternative destinations. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid growing public unrest in Greece, the government there is temporarily halting the construction of permanent detention centers for people seeking asylum, who are flocking to the country.

    Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been stranded in Greece for more than four years since the border with neighboring Macedonia was sealed and the European Union failed to offer enough places to asylum seekers.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant traveled to the island of Lesbos, a refugee way station.

    But he begins his report in the Greek capital, Athens.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    They traveled from the front line of Europe's migration crisis to show the Greek Interior Ministry that they have had enough.

    "We are all islanders," shouted a protester.

    In the islands of the Aegean Sea, traditional hospitality has given way to frustration and anger. In the past five years, more than 1,150,000 asylum seekers have landed on their beaches.

    A man called Thodoris Tselekas from the island of Lesbos shouted, "We won't give away our sacred land to non-Christians, to illegal migrants"

    this is the target of his indignation, Moria in Lesbos, universally vilified as an overcrowded, unsanitary, dangerous open prison. Originally designed to hold 2,000 temporary migrants, it has mutated into a permanent ghetto for 20,000, 10 times its intended capacity.

  • Thodoris Tselekas (through translator):

    Where are their papers? I have an I.D. My name is Thodoris Tselekas. Where are their papers? They are illegal migrants.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    His concern and that of other protesters is that a bigger migrant camp is due to be built close to the Taxiarchis monastery, one of the holiest places in Lesbos, where, it's claimed, miracles take place.

  • Man (through translator):

    Those that come here are raging dogs. They are born to savage any Christian when they see one. But God will send fire like he did in China, in Australia, in Brazil and other places. God will take care of us. That's certain.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But not everyone holds such extreme views.

  • Woman:

    I am really angry for both sides, for our islands, the Greek people, and for the refugees, because they put a lot of people in one hot spot. The living conditions are terrible. The people that live near the harbors, the villagers there, suffer.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    "Stop incarceration and seizing land," they chant.

  • Man:

    They want to leave as much as we want them to leave, because it is ruining our regular daily life there. We're not asking for anything else. We're just asking what they want to do. They want to leave as well.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Kostas Moutzouris, the regional governor of the Northern Aegean, is leading the campaign to relieve the islands.

  • Woman:

    I really don't think anyone has fallen into the water.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There were 60,000 new arrivals in 2019. It was the busiest year since 2016. Crews from the Irish nonprofit Refugee Rescue say that young Afghan men comprise an estimated 70 percent of those reaching Lesbos from Turkey on flimsy dinghies.

    But others come from Africa and the Middle East. Immigrants comprise 40 percent of the population of the five affected islands, whereas, on the Greek mainland, the figure is only 2 percent.

    Governor Moutzouris says the imbalance needs to be corrected.

  • Kostas Moutzouris:

    All these people have to be dispersed around the country and probably in Europe. But if it's not possible in Europe, to be dispersed in the rest of the country.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And the governor has this warning:

  • Kostas Moutzouris:

    It's like powder awaiting a match to start fire.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Governor Moutzouris wants to avoid a repeat of scenes in early February, when migrants clashed with riot police after protesting about conditions inside Moria.

    The police deployed tough tactics against the predominantly young male protesters. But they were accused of brutality after migrant families with young children were overwhelmed by tear gas.

    Tensions rose to the surface in January, when islanders went on strike and staged demonstrations demanding the closure of the camps. Continuing hostility has forced the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, to freeze plans announced earlier this year in the Greek Parliament.

  • Notis Mitarachi (through translator):

    The situation is unacceptable. That is why we have been saying for the last two months, that the new centers have to be built on the islands, with dignified living conditions for those inside and the utmost security for the region and the utmost security for the employees of the asylum service, so they can effectively speed up their services.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The government's retreat is a victory for a campaign of civil disobedience on Lesbos, where islanders blocked access roads leading to land requisitioned by the government for a new detention camp.

    But protest leader Despina Gabriel is aware the battle isn't over yet.

  • Despina Gabriel (through translator):

    There's going to be a war amongst the people, the local people, with the government people. We are not going to allow them to put any campsite, not on this island or nowhere in the Northern Aegean.

    People cannot live. The farmers are suffering as well. And the lives of the people has been just absolutely destroyed. You cannot understand what they are going through.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is the fishing village of Skala Sikaminia in Northern Lesbos. Five years ago, residents were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the lives of so many migrants.

    But, weary of the open borders policy of the previous left-leaning government, the people of Lesbos turned right at the last election six months ago.

    Greece's new conservative government is trying to project a tough image when it comes to migration. It says it's determined to protect the country's frontiers. Recently, it announced plans to build a floating wall between Turkey, six miles away in that direction, and this island, Lesbos.

    The wall is supposed to be 1.7 miles' long with lights on at night. And the government hopes that it's going to deter migrants from making the crossing.

    But the idea of a maritime version of President Trump's Mexican wall has been condemned. Experts believe the construction could further endanger migrants' lives.

    Gracelin Moore from Massachusetts is a volunteer with the Irish nonprofit Refugee Rescue.

  • Gracelin Moore:

    I think that there's a poet that said it best, that you don't put your children on a boat unless your home the jaws of a shark.

    These people are fleeing war. And the glimpse of hope that is the shores of Europe is oftentimes an overcrowded camp. Policies are enacted by the E.U. to make their lives more and more difficult here to deter them from coming. But because of the kind of violence that they see and the danger of their home country, they have no other choice.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Greek government has appealed to NATO to reinforce European Coast Guard vessels patrolling waters used by migrants and people traffickers.

    But political analyst Nick Malkoutzis believes the Greeks are in denial about the reality of the influx.

  • Nick Malkoutzis:

    There seems to be a lack of desire among Greek politicians and in Greek society to discuss the fact that there are tens of thousands of genuine asylum seekers here in Greece who are not going anywhere.

    They're not being allowed to go to Northern Europe or other countries that they want to. And they are stuck here for years on end. And Greek society isn't really addressing this issue about how to integrate, how to provide jobs, how to provide education.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Back outside Parliament, the protesters found sympathy from a surprising source, Anwar Bakri, secretary-general of the Syrians Association in Greece.

  • Anwar Bakri:

    We do agree with the request and their demands, the people of the five islands in the Aegean Sea, because what's going on is a crime against humanity in these five islands.

    Close down these animal farms. Give the papers to the refugees, so they can go north, because, in Greece, the situation is very, very bad.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And it could get worse. Potentially, the numbers could be swollen by refugees from heavy fighting in Syria's Idlib province, not to mention Turkey's President Erdogan's constant threat to open the migration floodgates.

    The islands and their unhappy guests are fishing for a reversal of European Union policy. But since the rest of Europe effectively sealed off Greece four years ago, there has been no sign of the tide changing.

    So, the aspirations of the migrants and islanders are likely to flounder once again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.

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