Greek riot police fired tear gas Thursday to try to disperse angry protesters on the island of Lesvos who tried to topple a police bus during a demonstration against a European Union migration policy.
The protesters were among 2,500 demonstrators who gathered in Lesvos’ main port as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrived to speak at a conference. A large contingent of riot police formed a cordon to block the protesters from advancing further, and scores of them then tried to push over a police bus.
Officers fired tear gas and earlier had discharged a flash grenade. No one has been injured or arrested. The crowd has regrouped, but there hasn’t been any further violence.
A general strike Thursday virtually shut down the island to protest a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey that has left thousands of asylum-seekers stranded on Lesvos.
Under the deal, migrants arriving on Greek islands from Turkey are held and face deportation to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. The deal has created a massive backlog, angering people on Lesvos and other Greek islands.
Most businesses, shops, cafes and local government offices were shuttered in the main town of Mytilene. The only sign of normality was that police officers were still on duty, and the local tax office was open.
Stores were also closed in protest on the nearby island of Chios.
More than 15,000 migrants and refugees remain stuck on Lesvos, Chios, and three other islands, most staying in severely overcrowded camps.
“Thousands of people are still living in appalling conditions with limited access to medical facilities,” the aid group Doctors Without Borders. Conditions at the largest refugee camp in Lesbos, the group said “were putting the health and lives of people stranded on the island at risk.”
Additional police officers, including anti-riot units, were sent to Lesbos and took up positions around Mytilene. Supporters and opponents of the government used vans fitted with loudspeakers to promote the protest as well as a speech planned by the prime minister later Thursday.
Tension on the islands has been building as the number of migrants arriving from Turkey has risen sharply in recent weeks.
“The situation on the island is exceptionally difficult. We are feeling the effects of a long-term financial crisis and the way the refugee crisis has been handled,” Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos said.
“For there to be any talk of growth or recovery, we must first be lifted out of this emergency situation.”
The government has promised to move thousands of asylum-seekers to the mainland but says the effort will take several months to implement — requiring additional staff and more shelter sites around Greece.
In the meantime, the number of daily arrivals continues to rise on the island and Greeces land border with Turkey.