LESBOS, Greece -- Riot police and residents clashed for several hours on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios Tuesday, as protesters tried to prevent authorities from bringing excavating machines from the mainland to build new migrant detention camps.
Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds that gathered to try and stop police from disembarking from government-chartered ferries.
On Lesbos, protesters set fire to trash bins and used municipal garbage trucks to try and block off the port area.
Police on Chios also used tear gas and flash grenades. At least three people,including the island's mayor, were hospitalized for breathing difficulties caused by the extensive use of tear gas, local officials said.
The government says it will move ahead with plans to build the new facilities and has promised to replace existing camps where severe overcrowding has worsened in recent months.
Many island residents as well as local authorities vehemently argue that the migrants and asylum- seekers should be moved to the Greek mainland.
The standoff between police and protesters continued Tuesday near the areas where the new camps will be built, as police cordoned off areas around roadblocks set up over the past few days by demonstrators on the two islands.
Stelios Petsas, the government spokesman, argued that authorities couldn't impose any order on the situation without the new camps.
“We understand that there is a problem of trust that was created over the previous years,” he told state-run TV. “But the closed facilities will be built and we are calling on the public to support this.”
Petsas claimed that the government was also compelled to act because of heightened concerns over the widening coronavirus outbreak, arguing that proper health checks couldn't be carried out at existing overcrowded camps.
Greece is the busiest entry point for illegal migration in the European Union with most arrivals occurring on eastern Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Under a 2016 agreement backed and funded by the EU, the movement of migrants is restricted to those islands until their asylum claims are processed.
Nearly 60,000 migrants and refugees arrived on Greek islands last year, almost double the number recorded in 2018, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Derek Gatopoulos reported from Athens.