ATHENS - Greece says it will deport "migrant troublemakers" to their homelands in a bid to combat rising crime and surging migration inflows that have reached a breaking point for the refugee-swollen country.
The announcement by Public Order Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis follows the recent deadly shooting of a 23-year-old Afghan man in a heated standoff with a rival Pakistani gang in central Athens. It also follows violent clashes between police and thousands of asylum seekers who took to the streets of Lesbos earlier this month to protest living conditions on the island's overcrowded camp, and tougher asylum regulations enforced by the new conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
"These troublemakers and criminal offenders have no place in Greece," Chrysochoidis said. "They have chosen the wrong country and society to behave criminally against."
"Rest assured," he told Apotipomata, a leading current affairs program, "that migrant troublemakers will be hunted down and forced to leave."
More than 100 migrant arrests have been made in the past days in Athens alone. An additional 40 asylum seekers have been rounded up in Lesbos, the start of what authorities call sweeping operations to crack down on rival ethnic groups' criminal activities, including sex trafficking and drug trafficking, while waiting for their asylum requests to be processed.
"For years," Chrysochoidis said, "there was no real attempt to penalize them. They would be rounded up, detained and then released, allowing them to resume their criminal conduct while waiting for their asylums to be processed."
Now, under new legislation adopted by the government, offenders will instantly be stripped of their asylum rights and detained until deportation, in closed facilities on a host of Greek islands.
"You cannot expect a country to be rewarding criminal offenders and troublemakers with asylum," Chrysochoidis said.
Nearly 60,000 migrants and refugees illegally crossed to the Greek islands from Turkey last year, roughly double the rate recorded in 2017 and 2018, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The dramatic rise adds to more than 100,000 asylum seekers already in the country, mainly on the Greek mainland, waiting for their legal claims to be processed, with a backlog expected to last more than five years.
Mitsotakis' government surged to power in July vowing to combat rising crime and enforce a tougher stance on migration. That position includes plans to set up a floating barricade off the coast of Lesbos and reject 95% of asylum claims. Officials say it is a bid to sift through some 75,000 requests in fast-track procedures intended to ease overcrowded camps on five Greek islands at the forefront of Europe's lingering refugee crisis.
State data released this week showed authorities approving 79 of a total of 1,881 cases reviewed in the last month alone.
The government's hardened stance has stoked concerns by human rights and aid organizations that say the new fast-track asylum rules would allow only days for requests to be reviewed - a process that ordinarily requires months to be fairly considered.
Aid works and charity groups have urged the government to ease overcrowded conditions at islands camps, adding that asylum procedures must be fair.
"The government must urgently implement its plan to move people to the mainland, improve conditions and enforce a fast and fair asylum procedure," said Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for UNHCR Greece. He said it was also important for other regions in the country to accept migrants and that the EU should re-open an ill-fated relocation scheme.
Meanwhile, residents of refugee-swollen islands are voicing anger over the government's intention to set up new camps there, to serve as migrant holding centers.
Locals on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros warn that their economies have already been shattered by the migration crisis with the business of many hotels and restaurants falling off by more than 50% in recent years.
Tensions with the local communities are expected to heighten in the coming weeks as the government plans to use emergency legal powers to requisition large swathes of forest land on the five islands to create the contentious detention centers as it also speeds up deportations.
Greece has been grappling with rising tides of illegal migration since the summer, receiving the biggest inflow in four years, or since the EU signed a landmark accord with Turkey to stem a mass migration move of some 1.2 million mainly Syrian refugees to Europe.
While the 2016 deal has helped dramatically decrease illegal arrivals by as much as 97%, the contentious measures now adopted by the new government underscore how four years since the landmark EU agreement deal, Greece still remains ground zero for Europe's migration crisis.
"We're changing the rules," Chrysochoidis said. "And it's not out of spite or because of some racist belief. We finally have to defend out people from the fallouts of this crisis."