Greek road-trip: migrant issue looms large on 'weary' Samos in Greek elections

Samos (Greece) (AFP) - When night falls on the Aegean island of Samos, scores of migrants leave the filthy camp above the island capital of Vathi for some fresh harbour air.

Many locals are not happy to see them. And after years of cohabitation, the migrant issue looms large over national elections on Sunday.

"Samos used to be very calm and very clean, and now there's garbage and the stench of urine everywhere," says Anna Loukazaki, a painter who runs her own boutique at Vathi.

The island is "very weary" of the migrants, she adds.

Less than two kilometres from the coast of Turkey, Samos is among a handful of Greek islands thrust to the forefront of the migration crisis in 2015, when more than 800,000 migrants and refugees mainly from war-torn Syria made the perilous Aegean crossing from Turkey.

Crammed inside barely-floating dinghies and boats, hundreds died in the attempt.

An EU deal with Ankara in 2016 drastically reduced the flow to the islands of Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros.

But a few dozen still arrive daily by boat -- risking their lives in the process -- and it is enough to overwhelm capacity: the Samos camp, built for 650, houses over 3,000 people.

"Generally, people here are not hostile to the migrants, they are hostile to the government who they feel is responsible for the situation," says Ioannis Kaltakis, a local lawyer.

But Kaltakis insists that the government "will pay for its failure to guard the borders" in national elections coming on July 7 where the migrant issue will be the "main criterion" for Samos voters.

Georgios Stantzos was in June elected mayor for a constituency that accounts for about half of Samos. He says islanders are "very disappointed" with the government in Athens and also the European Union.

"It's as if the EU decided to make Samos a warehouse of human souls," he told AFP.

"But mainly, there is great disappointment with the Greek government that has failed to manage the situation," he adds.

In European parliament elections in May, the Samos vote was consistent with the rest of Greece.

The conservative New Democracy party topped the ballot, ahead of the leftist Syriza party of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Nationalist parties, including neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, picked up about 3,000 votes.

The Greek migration ministry has struggled for months to alleviate pressure on Samos, pledging in 2018 to shut down the camp altogether this year.

The relocation of more than 5,000 refugees to the mainland in 2018 also made little difference as more arrived to take their place, the ministry says.

- 'People here have had enough' -

Yiorgis Margetis, a pensioner who worked in Belgium, says migrants are making a negative impact on local life.

"In the evenings, 200 migrant kids swarm the playground, you'd never dare to leave your own children there," he says, adding that he no longer feels safe to walk the harbour at night as he once did.

"People here have had enough," says Margetis. "The city is dead, shops are closing, and the situation with the migrants is going from bad to worse."

But there is some understanding of the plight of the migrants, who are stuck in deplorable conditions while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

"They are trapped here, and they are treated like animals," says Ilias Palaigeorgiou, who runs a harbour tourist shop with his brother.

He notes that certain restaurants refuse to serve them, and that some island beaches are closed to them.

For his elder brother Yiorgos, the city is too close to the camp and acts as a magnet.

"Maybe if the camp is moved outside town, they will stop coming," he says.

The UN refugee agency has described camp conditions as "dire" with limited access to health services, exposing women, children, and men to serious risk.

Another local pensioner, 80-year-old Yiorgos Sfiropoulos, says authorities will eventually bow to the "harsh reality" of building a new camp.

"There are thousands of them at Vathi. What are they going to do, throw them into the sea?" he wonders.