This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Azher Abbas’ capture reads like a classic fairy tale. “There was a knock at the door, and a voice outside said, ‘I am a boss, I have work; come out and work’.”
It was the pre-dawn hour, when farmers in provincial towns drive around recruiting day labourers like Abbas. He opened the door of the flat he shared with two other undocumented Pakistani migrants.
“Policemen burst in and started turning the place upside-down. They asked us for our papers. They took us away.”
Abbas had spent 15 months as a farm hand in the town of Skala in southern Greece. He picked oranges and olives from dawn till dusk, or tilled land, for up to 25 euros a day. Once a month, he sent about 150 euros home to support his parents and three siblings.
It was paradise compared to what followed. He spent another 15 months at the Korinth detention centre, one of half a dozen camps police have created to sequester irregular migrants. An estimated 6,000 are held in such camps, and thousands more at police precincts.
“We were never treated as people,” says Abbas. One day he and his fellow-inmates complained about the chick-pea stew. “A bunch of policemen came and spat in the food and held batons over us and said ‘eat it now’.”
When a man in Abbas’ dormitory of 80 people caught scabies, a highly infectious skin disease, the men demanded he go to hospital. The response was swift. “They beat us so badly, that a lot of people simply went out of their minds with fear… No-one complained again, because we realised that if any of us got sick or died we just couldn’t tell anyone. We had no rights.”
Sickness and the threat of death became Abbas’ ticket out. Appalling hygiene conditions contributed to his contracting Hepatitis C. The Greek chapter of Doctors of the World diagnosed him and asked for his release. “You aren’t ready to die yet,” a policeman told him. “You still have some months to go. When you’re close to death we’ll let you out. You won’t die in here.”
Abbas was released in April. The Orthodox Church’s Athens diocese, which runs a charity clinic for the uninsured, provided him with the expensive medicine he needs to fight the disease; but his recovery is shaky.
Conditions are often appalling. Journalists are not allowed inside detention centres, but Doctors Without Borders’ Greek chapter photographed raw sewage seeping through the floors of the Komotini centre. Inmates are confined indoors 22 hours a day with nothing to do, the aid group says, reporting that some have tried to kill themselves.
These often inhumane conditions were at least limited to periods of up to 18 months. Now, Greece may be violating European law by extending detentions indefinitely by re-labeling them ‘restraint’, based on an opinion from the State Legal Council, an advisory body. The policy has already kept at least 300 people behind bars for longer than 18 months.
A Greek Court of First Instance struck this opinion down last month, ruling that
in no case authorises the maximum period defined in that provision to be exceeded”, it says, quoting the European Court of Justice.
Greek police tell Al Jazeera that detention beyond 18 months isn’t implemented in all cases. “If an immigrant refuses to co-operate with his deportation order, is a flight risk, isn’t recognised by his country’s consulate, and has no legal residence or the means to support himself, the competent authorities may … compel him to remain in his detention facility until he agrees to co-operate with his deportation order.”
But the ECJ ruling applies “even where ‘‘the person concerned ... is not in possession of valid documents, his conduct is aggressive, and he has no means of supporting himself and no accommodation or means supplied by the Member State for that purpose.”
Police say they have deported 65,573 irregular migrants in 2011-13, and estimate that the number will exceed 100,000 by the end of this year; but not
The fact that Greek authorities weren’t able to [effect deportations] within the already generous 18-month period is a failure of this policy of pre-deportation detention,” says
“Even nationalities who may not be deported because of the situation in their country, such as Somalis, Eritreans and Syrians, continue to be kept in detention. This is a strong indication that detention is not being used to facilitate deportation but has other aims, such as the discouragement of further migration,” says Konstantinou.
If true, such a detention policy would harken back to a time when the Greek immigration system as a whole seemed to act in a deterrent fashion. Police used to keep political asylum applications in process for years. Out of 89,575 applications between 2006 and 2011, Greece approved just one percent (929), against a European average of about one in five. Many economic migrants found the process a useful way to remain in Greece without proper residence permits.
Last year, under sustained pressure from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Greece established a dedicated Asylum Service. In its first year it efficiently processed 8,945 applications and approved 1,206 – about the same number as in the previous seven years combined. Almost all went to Palestinians, Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis, whose societies are in political turmoil.
To ensure that new arrivals could contact asylum authorities, Greece also established a string of First Reception Centres along the border, where migrants receive medical checkups and legal advice.
As Greek immigration authorities mature, attention falls on the European policy vacuum. “We are dealing with a problem that is not Greek, it is a European problem and that is why we are constantly asking for the support and solidarity of other EU countries,” says Panayotis Nikas, the First Reception Centres director.
Some of that support is necessarily financial. The First Reception service’s current budget is $6.6mn (4.9mn euros) for 2014, but it has applied for a further $30.8mn (22.6mn euros) in European funds, without which it says it cannot maintain its services and facilities, or build new ones.
Border control costs even more. Greece’s maritime border with Turkey is the gateway for nine tenths of irregular migration into Europe. Policing it cost $86mn (63mn euros) last year, and even though it is an external European border, the EU contributed just $3.9mn (2.9mn euros).
What worries the Hellenic Coastguard is that the rate of flow has doubled this year to about 1500 a month.
There are hidden costs, too. A research paper for the Database on Irregular Migration estimated the number of irregular migrants resident in Greece at 3.5 percent of the population by the end of 2011. The equivalent figure for the EU was just 0.7 percent.
Even if the EU contributes more, money alone will not solve the problem, believes Efi Latsoudi, member of a volunteer group on Lesbos who help clothe and feed migrants. “It’s not only the [migrant] traffickers who are criminals, it’s also this European policy which is criminal,” she says. “When you know that people in need are escaping their country and they are forced to get into these boats to try and save their life and the life of their children and you let them, then we are also criminals.”
“I think we have gone through the point of talking about just financial support,” Nikas says. “We need to talk about issues such as relocation and a more comprehensive response from the European Union.”
The European Union’s asylum rules, referred to as Dublin II, only allow people to apply in the country of arrival, and that burdens Greece disproportionately. “Ιt is obvious that we need to rethink Dublin ΙΙ with our European partners,” says Greece’s new citizens’ protection minister, Vasilis Kikilias.
The European Economic and Social Committee, an advisory body to the European Commission, agrees. “We have proposed places in safe third countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, where these asylum seekers could ask for the political status of refugees in Europe,” says Henri Malosse, its president. “We could open a legal way for them to come to Europe, rather than for them to be in the hands of a mafia and to die in the sea.”
But the timing is off. Anti-immigration parties won their largest-ever bloc of seats in European Parliament elections last May. “It is a real scandal that we had to wait so long for one vision on immigration,” says Malosse. Europe may end up waiting longer, while more migrants suffer on the high seas.