Greek island residents protest over migrant camps and conditions

ATHENS (Reuters) - Residents of Greek islands struggling with a resurgence in migrant arrivals protested on Wednesday about overcrowded refugee camps and government plans to replace them with detention centers.

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Waving Greek flags and banners reading “We want our islands back!” thousands of demonstrators participated in a protest organized by local authorities on the northern Aegean islands of Samos, Lesbos and Chios.

“There should be no more warehouses of suffering souls in the northern Aegean,” said Costas Moutzouris, the regional governor.

Shops remained shut and public services were disrupted on the islands during a walkout on Wednesday as part of the protest. Protesters demand that migrants be moved to the mainland and that refugees be allowed to leave the country.

“Our islands can no longer be prisons. Along with migrants and refugees we are also being imprisoned,” said Stratis Ververis, one of the protesters. “The migration issue must be dealt with immediately.”

Greece was the main gateway into the European Union for more than a million migrants fleeing conflict in 2015-16 and crossing through Turkey.

Last year, 59,726 migrants and refugees reached Greece’s shores according to the UN agency UNHCR. Nearly 80% of them arrived on Lesbos, Chios or Samos.

Aid groups have described the living conditions of about 36,000 people in camps operating far beyond their capacity as appalling.

“The situation is really bad. There is no water, no electricity, the weather is really cold. We cannot sleep in the tent to brave the cold,” said one unnamed migrant.

The conservative government elected in July has announced plans to “decongest” the islands, shut down existing refugee camps and replace them with holding centers in roughly the same areas that will process new arrivals and people whose asylum applications have been rejected.

The centers that will close include the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos which was set up to accommodate 3,000 people but hosts at least five times that number.

Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Reuters TV; Editing by Hugh Lawson