By H,lSne COLLIOPOULOU
KOS, Greece, Feb 12, 2016 (BSS/AFP) – As dawn breaks over the Greek island of Kos, 20 soldiers and five bulldozers wait to start construction work on a site that has become a flashpoint for the tourist hub on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis.
The construction of the so-called “hotspot” has been held up by opposition from the mayor and local residents, but site overseer Vassilis Klamponis said his team is going as fast as they can.
“Our people are working 24 hours a day and everything is being done to finish the work with minimum delay,” he told AFP.
For now, only the pillars of a building stand on the site and work is still under way to level the ground for a 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) enclosure where several prefabricated buildings will be installed for up to 800 people.
Greece has pledged to build five “hotspots” to house and process migrants on the islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos and Samos.
Situated just a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, the scenic tourist idyls have become the gateway to Europe for tens of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in hope of a better life.
Brussels has already threatened to impose border controls between Greece and the rest of the bloc’s passport-free Schengen zone over its lax handling of the migrant crisis, Europe’s worst since World War II.
“The hotspot is to provide food, housing, health care and registration procedures, according to UN standards,” said Klamponis.
Greece is now in a race against time to prove it can construct the hotspots and 10 days ago deployed the army to help.
But on Kos, an island of 30,000, the plan is facing strong opposition.
– ‘Scared of illness, rapes’ –
“On an island where hundreds of millions of euros have been invested for tourism they can’t create these so-called hotspots without asking the opinion of residents,” said hotelier Yannis Mastromichalis.
There have already been several demonstrations by locals, some of which have seen clashes with police, and another is planned for Sunday.
“We are not xenophobes or from the extreme right like they say we are,” said one of the protesters, farmer Sterios Liampakeros. “But we are scared of illness, rapes.”
The island attracted some 1.8 million people last year, but deputy mayor David Gerasklis warns reservations for 2016 are already down 30 percent.
Klamponis said migrants currently spend between 24 and 48 hours on the island, but many fear they will end up stuck in Kos because of the growing reticence of other EU member states to take them in.
Clashes last year between riot police and migrants who had been locked in a stadium have also damaged Kos’ reputation.
“No one wants to see that again,” said Marco Procaccini, an official from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), casting the current engagement with the government as a “positive step”.
Still, with the island already struggling to cope with the 2,000 people arriving every day, frontline volunteer Oscar Perez Ruiz Diaz thinks the hotspots will help.
An Afghan couple, the woman pregnant and holding a two-year-old boy in her arms, approach, and ask him for 250 euros granted by a Luxembourg bank that will help them travel to Germany more quickly.
The facilities “will allow better organisation and create jobs”, said the Argentine from the UN’s Mercy Corps.