Migration minister denies reported hunger strike after tense visit to Elliniko

“We understand the refugees’ concerns, they are a motive for us to do better but the laws cannot be flouted,” Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said in a press conference at Elliniko on Monday. He also underlined that there was no hunger strike underway at the camp.

“This was a fake news report put out by some organisations seeking to create an issue,” Mouzalas told reporters. He also claimed that earlier incidents involved only 30 of the roughly 700 people living at the site, with the assistance of some Greek organisations.

The minister held the press conference at the site of the former airport, currently used as a refugee and migrant camp, following a visit marked by scuffles and tension. A group of camp residents had attempted to lock him out, chaining the gates to prevent him entering the camp, but were eventually persuaded to open the doors voluntarily, without police intervention. There followed a meeting between the minister and a delegation of camp residents.

Mouzalas said the protestors, who were demanding better living conditions, had attempted to lock down the site and prevent supply trucks, doctors and school buses from entering the facility. Regarding the fake report about a hunger strike, the minister said a specific Greek political organisation was behind it and had made similar false announcement at least twice before.

Even though he understood people’s pain and admitted that some mistakes were made, the government was “doing the best it can,” Mouzalas added. Only those who did nothing avoided mistakes, the minister pointed out.

Reviewing Greece’s track record, he noted that the government had succeeded in normalising the situation on the Greek mainland in the six months since the Idomeni camp was dismantled. It had got people off the streets, children into school and provided food, shelter, heating and even wifi connections for 80 pct of migrant facilities, he said. In France, by contrast, refugees evacuated from the “Jungle” at Calais were still sleeping in tents on town squares.

“They are not wrong to complain about the food but it’s there: people are not going hungry. It is hard to achieve a perfect balance,” Mouzalas noted. He also pointed out that anyone who felt “oppressed” at the facility was free to leave. “Refugees can move freely, as can all Greeks,” he noted.

He admitted to delays in moving people out of Elliniko, which the government intended to abolish as a migrant reception centre, but reported difficulties. Apart from the need to construct new reception facilities, he pointed out, there were also reactions from local communities when attempts were made to move migrants and refugees there.

The protest at Elliniko started on Sunday, when the Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (KEERFA) issued an announcement complaining about conditions and reporting a hunger strike. Among others, it said that “mothers with babies and small children do not even have the bare essentials, such as baby formula and nappies. The food provided by the organisation DRC is unacceptable. There is no hot water or washing machines. There is no access to hospitals, since there are no interpreters.”

Strong criticism of Mouzalas’ visit was voiced by the opposition Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the Democratic Alliance parties, with the second demanding the minister’s resignation.

“Today’s incidents at the former airport at Elliniko are yet another proof that the government’s and the minister’s policy has failed dismally,” Democratic Alliance MP Theodoros Papatheodorou said.

KKE stressed that the government bore full responsibility for poor conditions at Elliniko and that Mouzalas’ statements urging them to “leave if they didn’t like it,” were “butter on the bread of xenophobia and fascist rhetoric.”