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June 02, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek police were evacuating hundreds of migrants and refugees Friday from a makeshift shelter set up inside the abandoned buildings of Athens’ old airport, which have been slated for redevelopment.

Access to the Hellenikon airport site was blocked off in the morning, and dozens of police officers and riot police stood by as the roughly 600 migrants collected their belongings and boarded buses to refugee camps elsewhere in Greece.

Police said about 350 people, mainly families, would go to a camp in Thebes, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of Athens, while the remainder of mainly single people would go to Derveni, about 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of the capital.

No violence was reported during the evacuation, which was assisted by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. “The facilities at the old airport are a holdover from the initial stage of the crisis, when thousands of people were reaching our islands,” Yiannis Balafas, deputy minister for migration, said on state-run ERT television. “So this was something that remained from that time, and now they will go to more suitable facilities.”

Migrants and Greek activists have held several demonstrations at Hellenikon to protest living conditions there over the past few months. The site, which includes Athens’ old international airport and 2004 Olympic Games venues, is part of Greece’s privatization efforts and is slated for a massive seaside urban redevelopment project worth an expected 7 billion euros ($7.8 billion).

The Hellenikon complex, largely abandoned over the last 13 years despite the country’s deep financial crisis, had been used to house up to 3,000 migrants. Most had been living in tents and in poor conditions inside the buildings during their stay.

About 60,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece, which was the main entry point for people seeking to enter the European Union last year. The vast majority arrived on boats from the nearby Turkish shores to Greek islands and had been trying to reach the more prosperous countries in the north of the continent. But an EU-Turkey agreement last year and border closures across the Balkans have ended the flow.

The Hellenikon development is led by Greece’s Lamda Group with a consortium of overseas investors, and is planned to include a large park, shopping and recreation areas and hotels. During the 2004 Olympics, the complex hosted fencing, baseball, softball, hockey, and canoe and kayak events. Several other Olympic venues have been underused or abandoned in the years since the games.

Thanassis Stavrakis in Athens contributed to this report.

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