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Tensions on Aegean Islands culminate in nationalist General Strike

On Wednesday, 22 January 2020 Mytilene witnessed one of the biggest strikes of the island. Large buses transported people from the villages into Mytilene to take part in a demonstration. Initially the strike was planned under the slogan ‘No closed centers on the islands!’ but as a nationalistic turn was then changed by Greek officials into ‘We want our lives back - we want our island back!’

The islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios shut down all public services as part of a 24-hour general strike to protest the government’s handling of a rise in refugee arrivals by sea from Turkey during the recent months. The government announced plans in November to replace existing overcrowded centers with new facilities on several of the Aegean islands where some 36,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are currently living. The plans have been strongly opposed by locals who complain that transfers of asylum-seekers to the mainland have failed to keep pace with new arrivals.1 Meanwhile, tensions at the existing reception centers have been growing: Since the beginning of the year three men died in different incidents.2 A 17-year-old Afghan girl was hospitalized on Monday after being stabbed by a fellow Afghan at Moria reception center on Lesvos. Authorities are investigating the rise in violence at Moria and have arrested suspects.

The closure of all shops was mandatory, no classes took place at school, public transportation was suspended. We witnessed a strong nationalist presence but at the same time other groups used the call to show solidarity with migrants. While some politicians took part in hate speech, blaming NGOs for the situation on the island, on the other hand medics stated that they don’t look at papers but treat everyone. Other groups talked about solidarity and support for refugees.

The turnout was immense – many people took part in the strike. As volunteers, we could feel the hostility towards us as well. This is not unprecedented, tensions in Lesvos had been rising already for a long time and did so even more in the last month due to the rise of arrivals in December. There are no new facilities for the new arrivals in Moria, rather conditions are worsened by the winter weather conditions and electricity shortages. The area for new arrivals is so overcrowded that people do not have a place to sleep and have to move from tent to tent every night. The new tents are not in protected sections anymore. Residents of Moria continuously express how they are scared to fall asleep or to wait in a line. One of the women at the camp who witnessed a stabbing made a strong statement about this: “We are always trying to go in groups of at least five to make line, even at five in the morning. I have the feeling to walk on the blood of those who were in the line before me.”

The migrants that keep arriving from Turkey are not the problem! The main problem is that refugees seeking for asylum cannot leave the islands to travel further to Greek mainland and to other EU countries. The main problem is that refugees are locked on the islands and cannot leave, due to violent EU policies and mostly the notorious EU-Turkey statement. Therefore, if there is a reason to go on strike it would be to call for the freedom of movement for everyone!

During the strike, a lot of facilities for refugees in Mytilene decided to close in order not to put migrants in danger. Even the food distribution in Mytilene was cancelled and the word to not go out spread quickly. A medic team was on call and prepared a place in the city center in case the situation demanded they assisted people: Fortunately, nothing happened.

The demonstration stopped early and most of the demonstrators went back home, except for members of the Golden Dawn who went a step further. Activists from Mare Liberum and friends followed them to make sure they would not attack anyone. They went to the UNHCR building but no major harm was done to the building and soon they dissolved.