Greece will shut down the three largest of its overcrowded migrant camps on islands facing Turkey, and replace them with new closed facilities with much larger capacity, officials said Wednesday.
"Decongesting the islands is a priority at this stage," the government's special coordinator for migration Alkiviadis Stefanis, a former army general and chief of staff, told a news conference.
The three camps to be closed, on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, currently house over 27,000 people under terrible conditions that have been repeatedly castigated by rights groups and the Council of Europe. They have a nominal capacity of just 4,500.
The Greek government said it would replace the camps with new closed facilities for identification, relocation and deportation with a capacity of at least 5,000 people each.
Smaller camps on the islands of Kos and Leros are also to be remodelled along these lines and enlarged, Stefanis said.
Instead of being allowed to move freely in and out of the camps, asylum-seekers will now be locked up until they are granted refugee status and relocated to the mainland, or they are rejected and sent back to Turkey, officials said.
The government has vowed to relocate 20,000 asylum-seekers to camps on the mainland by early 2020.
The new conservative government which came to power in July has already passed a law stiffening asylum requirements for migrants, and has pledged to deploy additional border patrols.
Stefanis on Wednesday also said new criteria would be issued for the operation of NGO groups helping migrants, many of whom have fled the war in Syria.
"Only those (NGOs) that meet the requirements will stay and continue to operate in the country," said Stefanis, who is also deputy defence minister.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday accused the European Union of treating countries on the bloc's external frontiers as convenient places to park migrants.
"It cannot go on like this," Mitsotakis told German newspaper Handelsblatt.
"Europe regards arrival countries such as Greece as a convenient parking spot for refugees and migrants. Is that European solidarity? No! I will no longer accept this."
The International Organization for Migration last month said that Greece's mainland camps are already nearly full or past capacity.
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