Refugee aid groups attacked as tensions rock Greek island

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Greece has suspended asylum procedures and its troops have fired tear gas at migrants gathered at its land border with Turkey, after Ankara warned it would allow millions of refugees to enter Europe.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called on EU leaders for their “strong support” ahead of crisis talks on Tuesday, as rights groups accused Turkey of using migrants and refugees as bargaining chips to bolster its Syria offensive.

While Greece’s land border has had the largest swell of migrants heading for the EU, the country has also seen a surge in the number of people attempting to make the short journey from Turkey’s coast by boat to its northern Aegean islands.

That has exacerbated an already combustible environment on Lesbos, where years of arrivals have seen more than 19,000 people crammed into squalid conditions in a camp built to house less than 3,000.

Fed up with shouldering the burden of Europe’s bloated asylum system, locals have protested against the presence of the migrants exiled on their shores, saying they threaten the island’s safety, public health and tourism-dependent economy.

That anger has spilled into violence in recent days, with attacks blamed on an extremist minority that have targeted aid workers and disrupted their ability to help refugees, according to several groups based on the island.

“Once night falls, there are non-stop attacks on NGOs, on workers, on people who are here as volunteers,” said Douglas Herman, co-founder of the organisation Refocus, which teaches media skills to refugees.

“Most of those organisations right now have started to suspend their operations, some indefinitely. Many have advised their staff to leave the island, and many have heeded that call and have left or are leaving,” he told AFP, adding that all six of his group’s current volunteers are departing.

The violence has been waged by “fascist” mobs, he said, describing roadblocks around the island and thugs attacking or threatening people inside their cars.

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“People with chains are reaching into the vehicles, they are trying to reach people with broken shards of glass,” he said.

On Monday night, the crew of the human rights observation ship Mare Liberum, which patrols the Aegean, said it was “attacked by a mob of fascists” while docked on the island.
“They shouted, threatened us [and] poured gasoline on our deck!” the organisation wrote on Twitter.

Some aid workers have been instructed to keep a low profile.

Adriaan Kok, chairman of Connect by Music which teaches music classes to refugees, told AFP all international volunteers are being sent to Athens while local staff have been asked to cease their work.

Dutch group Boat Refugee Foundation, which provides medical care in the overcrowded Moria camp, also wrote on Facebook that they decided to evacuate their clinic on Sunday because it was no longer safe for aid workers.

Police, who have been accused of a sluggish response to the incidents, have opened an investigation after “several denunciations of attacks on people and cars” on the island, a police source told AFP.

Not all aid groups are leaving, however.

“We don’t plan to move,” said the medical coordinator of Medecins du Monde, Dimitris Patestos.

There is “fear and insecurity” among some staff but so far the group had not encountered issues with the local community, he added.

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