Volunteers with hair nets and blue aprons fill plates with spaghetti bolognese at the Caritas Refugee Center in Athens, Greece. Everyday, 5 people with the help from 70 volunteers try to make life for some of the refugees just a little more bearable.
“I have been arrested three times. Each time I’ve had to flee,” says Midi. He is one of the young men, who come to the Caritas Soup Kitchen in Athens. After crossing the Aegean sea together with 20 other hopeful migrants going to Europe for a new and better life. But not in Greece. In Germany or Sweden.
Across from Midi sits an elderly woman wearing all her jewelry. The hair was once colored brown, but now five centimetres of grey reveal her true colors. She may not look the part yet, but like anyone else here, she gets one meal every day.
The last thing people lose is their dignity.
Many of the young men are groomed. They wear clean clothes, and some of them even have cellphones. You would never know that they live in the parks and squares of Athens. In the soup kitchen they are safe. But at night many of them fear the Golden Dawn, police, fascist gang bangers and others getting rid of xenophobic anger.
There are 11.3 million people living in Greece. About 10 percent are migrants or refugees. But the number is hard to determine, because depending on who you ask. Most say around 500,000.
On the fourth floor of the building, three women from Africa are chatting on the sofa. One of the women are late to get her portion of supplies for her child.
“Last time!” Aglaia Konstantakopoulou, the social worker at Caritas states. “Last time.”
A thankful woman gets her food, and the week immediately became a 100 percent better. “Thank you”. And that’s the way it works in Caritas. Here ends meet.
Inside Caritas is safe, but the moment you step outside and onto the street, you are back to being just another one of the thousands of the shadow people: refugees and irregular migrants in Greece.
Greece wishes to be able to detain asylum seekers and migrants indefinitely if they do not cooperate with their own return. But this strives with EU legislation.
In one of the police station of Pireaus outside Athens, Greece sits a man who has not seen the sunlight for more than 17 months. He is one out of thousands of irregular migrants in one of the infamous detention centres around Greece, and he has not left his cell for 17 months.
Some migrants are there because they are waiting to be sent back to their countries of origin, some cannot be sent back due to what waits them if they return, and some have just entered the country and are now applying for asylum. All of them are in administrative detention. This means that while their case is being handled, they can be detained for up to 18 months.
But now some of them face even longer stays in the detention facilities. In March, the Greek State Legal Council published an opinion stating that, migrants in pre-removal centres can be detained indefinitely if they do not willingly return to their country of origin after 18 months in detention.
“Greece should immediately end the practice of prolonging detention of irregular migrants beyond the maximum period of 18 months established in EU legislation. Greece should revise altogether its policy of widespread, systematic and prolonged detention by aligning its practice and policy with current legislation, which establish that detention of migrants and asylum seekers should be a measure of last resort. Detention can have a devastating impact on people’s mental and physical health,” says Secretary General of The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Michael Diedring.
ECRE strongly urges the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection, who is in charge of the detention of migrants and refugees, to immediately withdraw the decision.
A living hell According to the opinion, detainees will be asked to voluntarily return to their country of origin shortly before they reach the maximum detention period of 18 months. If they do not cooperate, the authorities can keep them in detention without a specified time limit, forcing them to either stay in the detention centre or to cooperate.
This strives with EU’s Return Directive, which states a maximum detention period of 6 months. However, this maximum can be extended by a further 12 months in certain cases – meaning 18 months tops.
But there has been a large increase in persons subjected to prolonged incarceration. And most of the persons in prolonged detention are there for the maximum limit of time, 18 months. So say Doctors without Borders (MSF) who has had access to the otherwise very closed facilities during the past 6 years.
“For many people in the detention centres it is not an issue to sleep in cold weather and not taking showers for months. It is the uncertainty and the indefinite detention that is the problem. You don’t know when it is going to end. Prolonged systematic detention makes the problems worse. And in these camps you don’t have proper food and proper living conditions. It really does make your life into a living hell,” says Apostolos Veizis, M.D. and Head of the Medical Operational Support Unit at MSF in Greece.
A tool of discouragement It is not the first time Greece prolongs the detention period. In April 2013 around 2,000 inmates went on hunger strikes in detention centres protesting against the maximum period of detention being extended from 12 to 18 months.
The long detention period were by many detainees perceived as a direct attempt from the Greek authorities to discourage them from trying to stay in the country. So said the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2013.
The MSF has had similar experiences. They report of migrants talking about threats of indefinite detention, unless they cooperate with the authorities on their own forced return, or agree to a voluntary return.
Greece: We have done everything we can According to the opinion, 7,500 migrants are currently detained pending deportation or in order to apply for a voluntary return. 300 of them have already been in detention for 18 months.
Cecilia Wikström fears that more countries will follow suit and prolong the detention period. She is an MEP from the ALDE group, and has raised concern on the matter on the Parliament. At a plenary session on April 17th on the matter of prolonged detention in Greece, she said:
“The decision taken by the Greeks comes at a time when many people have been held for a maximum period of time because they were detained in 2012 and for me it is crystal clear that this decision runs counter to the EU legislation.”
But Greece has already done as much as the country can on the migration issue, says Greek MEP, Georgios Papanikolaou, from the EPP group. Europe, on the other hand, has, according to the MEP, not done enough.
”We need an integrated migration policy with a fair burden‐sharing, that places all member states on an equal footing in regards to the respect of people’s fundamental rights,” said Mr. Papanikolaou, calling for more solidarity for Greece from the other European countries.
Threats of indefinite detention However, the opinion may not be instated for very long. According to the ECRE, the court of Athens has ruled on May 23rd that detention for more than 18 months is illegal. This happened after a complaint made by the Greek Council for Refugees. So far one refugee has been released due to the court ruling. At least 300 are still detained – and many people are continuously detained in the pre-removal centres without reason.
“The idea is that detention centres are managing people who are going back to their home country or being deported. But the reality in Greece is that everybody is detained, including asylum seekers, people fleeing from violence, people who are victims of torture and unaccompanied minors,” Says Ioanna Kotsioni, Migration expert with MSF.
65 percent of the cases treated by the MSF are caused by or directly related to the migrants’ stay in the detention facilities.
Doctors without Borders sound the alarm on medical problems caused by living conditions in Greek detention facilities for migrants and asylum seekers. The European Union is urged to take their part of the responsibility.
“It is very dirty. The toilets are not working. The piping system is broken. Excrement is falling from the toilets on the first floor to the ground floor. People are locked up inside almost all day. We are allowed in the yard one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. And not always every day. Komotini is not a detention centre – it is a stable for animals.”
The words belong to a 28-year-old man interviewed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). He has been detained for 7 months in the Komotini pre-removal centre – one of the most notoriously known detention centres in Greece.
In the past 6 years, MSF has attended 9,921 migrants in Greek detention centres, and estimate that more than 65 percent of the medical problems are caused by detainment. The combination of lack of heating and proper food, overcrowding and bad hygiene conditions result in upper-respiratory tract infections, viruses and skin diseases among the detainees.
“We’ve had to respond to two outbreaks of scabies. This hasn’t happened for many years in these types of facilities,” says Apostolos Veizis, M.D. and Head of the Medical Operational Support Unit at MSF in Greece
Due to poor food and lack of exercise for the detainees, many of them get gastrointestinal problems as diarrea and constipation. MSF has also been dealing with dental cases that cannot be solved with pain killers.
“There was a Sudanese guy, who kept asking for help, because he had a serious toothache. He did not get any help until he removed the teeth with his bare hands causing a massive bleeding,” says Dr. Veizis and continues:
“To provide medical services, we sometimes had to go into the cells and attend to the patient while other people were present. That is not humane and it is not ethical to provide medical service this way”.
Not just a medical problem The detention centres do not only increase medical problems among the detainees. Mental health problems are also a major issue.
“The mental problems are related to the experiences from the war and their travel to Greece but they are increased due to the detention,” Dr. Veizis says.
According to him, people who have fled a war do not mind living under stressful conditions. But the uncertainty and indefinite detention are problems that make the mental health of the already exposed migrants even worse.
Against international law The detention centres in Europe are build to manage people who are being deported, but according to Migration Expert from MSF, Ioanna Kotsioni, the reality of the detention centres in Greece are far from the original idea.
“The reality of the detention centres in Greece is that everybody is detained, including asylum seekers, people fleeing from violence, people who are victims of torture and unaccompanied minors,” she says.
The conditions people are living under are a violation of the minimum rights, and Kotsioni is concerned that international standards and European legislation are not respected, as it has become too easy to deprive people their freedom with an administrative decision.
The Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection, who are in charge of the detention centres in Greece, estimates that around 7,500 people were detained in pre-removal centres and other facilities by February 2014.
Every year, Greece receives thousands of new irregular migrants from the conflicts in the Middle-east and North Africa. From January to April 2014, the European border control, FRONTEX, captured 42.000 refugees on their way to Europe. With 90 percent of the migrants going to Europe entering through Greece, this number is substantial.
Both Kotsioni and Veizis agree that the situation in the Greek detention centres is not solely to be dealt with by Greece. They urge the European Union to take their part of the responsibility too.
“As EU finances the operation of some of the detention facilities, and the operation of these centers are based on EU-legislation, there should be some kind of independent monitoring mechanism to make sure that people are not deprived from access to basic services like medical care, or not deprived of their dignity because of the conditions they live under,” Kotsioni says.
On the basis of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011 concerning article 3 on torture and inhumane conditions, the European countries are no longer allowed to send migrants back to Greece. It is currently being discussed, whether the same ruling should be maintained in Italy, who also face huge problems with detention centres.
It has not been possible to get any comments on the conditions in the detention centres from the politicians responsible for the EU legislation on this area, nor from the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection.