The Greek government and residents of the country’s Aegean Islands are locked in a fierce dispute over a national plan to construct registration and relocation centers for the hundreds of migrants and refugees arriving in the country each day.
More than 850,000 migrants and refugees from poverty-stricken and war-torn countries have arrived in Greece in the past year, and nearly 70,000 people made the journey from Turkey across the Aegean Sea in the first month of 2016 alone.
Countless numbers of refugees who arrive in Greece do so by way of the country's islands, where the arrival process has largely been run by volunteers and independent organizations. But facing pressure from other European nations to be more scrupulous about the registration of migrants and refugees, especially since the terrorist attacks in Paris three months ago, Greece is planning to open five new registration centers -- also dubbed “hotspots” -- and two relocation centers to handle the influx.
Some local residents, though, are fiercely opposed to the plan. Protests took place on Feb. 5 on the island of Kos. Two days later, in Diavata, an area close to the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, residents brought down the fence of one of the planned centers.
Here’s everything you need to know about the centers and the controversy.
Five Registration Centers, One Mission
There will be registration centers, or “hotspots,” located on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros.
The centers will provide new arrivals with shelter and will cover basic needs like food and clothing, but their main mission will be to record, identify and take the fingerprints of migrants and refugees, and to check their travel documents in an effort to build a detailed database of who has entered Greece before they move on to other European Union countries. The Greek police, the EU border security agency Frontex and the European law enforcement agency Europol will all be involved in that effort.
The centers will also accommodate officers from the Greek Asylum Services, the European Asylum Support Office and the First Reception service, which determines which of the arrivals can claim refugee status. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will also be involved, and there will be an office of the International Organization for Migration, the organization that is already coordinating the voluntary return of refugees who are ineligible for asylum.
Each hotspot will be able to accommodate an average of 1,000 people per day, although this number might rise according to needs. Migrants and refugees are expected to stay in the centers for no more than 24 hours, although the stay may be extended in exceptional cases or for specific categories of people such as pregnant women or patients.
The construction of hotspots is unlikely to render obsolete the aid provided by volunteers on the ground. Given the massive number of migrants and refugees arriving each day, there will still be a dire need for volunteers to help take in people when they first get out of the water, and to provide them with dry clothes and emergency treatment.
Race Against The Deadline
Despite needing some minor repairs, the hotspot in Lesbos is ready to use. The centers in Leros and Chios are expected to be available by the end of next week. The centers in Kos and Samos will be ready by the end of the month.
There's little room for error here -- Greece is on a tight deadline. In late January, the European Commission argued that without effective identification or registration procedures in place for migrants and refugees, Greece was neglecting its obligations to carry out proper external border controls. The commission recommended the construction of hotspots and relocation centers within three months.
While the Greek government replied that it found the criticism unwarranted and that it had dealt with the refugee crisis to the best of its abilities, it did pledge to complete the hotspots promptly and said it would start operating them by Feb. 15.
Two New Relocation Centers
Greece’s new relocation centers will be located on the mainland, and will be meant to temporarily accommodate refugees and migrants who were registered on the islands and want to continue on to other European nations.
The center will be located in the Schisto camp outside Athens. The second will be situated in military facilities in Diavata, Thessaloniki. While the first center is nearly half-completed, only 20 percent of work on the second center is done.
Once complete, the centers will be able to accommodate up to 4,000 people a day. The migrants and refugees will be able to stay in the accommodation centers for a maximum of 72 hours. While the hotspots are run by Greece's ministries of migration and citizen protection, the relocation centers will be staffed by the army.
The health department will be staffed by military and police doctors, and it may be possible for refugees to receive basic medical exams. There will also be special children's spaces, and a pediatrician and psychologists will be made available. The catering services of the country's armed forces will help provide meals.
Locals Aren't Happy...
Some local residents are vehemently opposed to the government’s plan, arguing that their neighborhoods aren’t able to accommodate that many migrants and refugees and that the government did not communicate the proposal well.
A series of protests have occurred on the island of Kos and in Diavata and Schisto, the sites of the planned relocation centers. Local authorities in Kos even plan to hold a referendum for residents to decide whether the hotspot stays or not.
The protests suggest that once the various facilities are up and running, locals may try to obstruct their workings.
...But The Government Is Unlikely To Back Down
Despite the outrage, the Greek government is unlikely to walk back its plans. It does not want to risk expulsion from the Schengen Area, Europe’s passport-free travel zone. And so the delicate situation is likely to continue.
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece. It has been translated into English and edited for a global audience.
More stories on Greece's migrant and refugee crisis:
- The Crossing
- Greece's Economy Is Getting Crushed Between Austerity And The Refugee Crisis
- Volunteers Helping Refugees In Greece Fear Government Clampdown
- The Two Faces Of Greece's Response To The Refugee Crisis
- The Morning Shift on Lesbos
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