‘It was hell’: asylum seekers and NGOs allege abuse in Greek detention
Exclusive: Three reports provide new evidence of migrants and asylum seekers being systematically detained and abused
When Fardin Hosseini arrived in Athens in August 2021, he thought he’d reached a place of safety. The 34-year-old had fled persecution in Iran, escaping by car through Turkey and on foot into Greece. He wanted to claim asylum. But despite trying “about 20 times” to register his claim through the Skype-based system in place at the time, he said he could not get through.
Around three weeks after their arrival, Hosseini and a friend were stopped by police. “They asked for our papers,” he said. “We told them we don’t have papers and have been trying to contact the asylum office, but they didn’t listen. They arrested us and we went to the police station. From there, they transferred us to Amygdaleza [detention centre].”
After Amygdaleza, Hosseini was transferred to Corinth detention centre. “It was hell,” he said. In Corinth, Hosseini said he witnessed guards removing detainees from rooms and beating them as “punishment” for arguments breaking out. Detainees would be taken to a “a guard room” that he said he could see from the window, and “when they came back, there were bruises all over [their bodies].”
He and other detainees were only allowed outside the room for four hours a day, including to use the bathroom. “It was a closed area,” Hosseini said. “For me, it was a jail. It was like Guantanamo [Bay].” When he asked why he was being held, he said police officers replied: “this is the law”.
Amygdaleza and Corinth are two of seven detention centres used in Greece to detain foreign nationals prior to their deportation. Approximately 2,800 people were held in these centres at the end of 2022, according to the Greek Council for Refugees. NGOs have described the system as “a black hole” – but the UK government has openly stated its intention to copy the Greek approach, saying last year that new arrivals would be “housed in accommodation centres like those in Greece”.
Hosseini was at the bottom of that hole for seven months and eight days. He said he continued to repeat his request for asylum throughout his detention, and received interview dates several times, but they were always pushed back. He had little choice but to wait.
Unlawful and violent practices
Three reports, released today by separate NGOs working in Greece, reveal that Hosseini’s experience of detention was far from unusual. The reports contain little-known details about immigration detention across Greece and have been published as part of a coordinated effort by the Border Violence Monitoring Network, Mobile Info Team, and I Have Rights.
In an exclusive preview seen by openDemocracy, the combined findings of these reports paint a picture of systemic detention and police violence against migrants in Greek detention facilities.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) found that 33 of 50 ex-detainees (65%) surveyed had experienced or witnessed violence by authorities while detained in Greece. A quarter of accounts mentioned the use of weapons including tasers by authorities and the use of violence as “punishment”. This includes people being beaten or kicked, at times by multiple officers or after having been strung up by their hands. The report’s authors say this evidence “may constitute torture or inhuman and degrading treatment,” which is prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights.
These revelations come in the wake of a leaked report by the human rights chief at Frontex, the EU border agency. In the confidential document, he calls for the agency to stop operating in Greece due to serious rights abuses by Greek border guards, violent pushbacks and the separation of children from their families.
Less than 5% of most nationalities with return orders in Greek detention are actually being returned to their home countries.
Mobile Info Team’s report, produced with support from Border Criminologies at Oxford University, draws on 50 in-depth interviews and 600 cases from their database. They emphasise the widespread use of unlawful detention in Greece.
Neither EU nor Greek law allows asylum seekers to be detained if the sole reason for doing so is because they have applied for international protection. Detention should always be a measure of “last resort’ according to EU rules. Those rules state that an asylum seeker can be detained if there is no other way to verify their identity, for example. However, other, vaguer grounds can also be used to justify detention, such as protection of “public order”.
According to Manon Louis, advocacy officer at Mobile Info Team, such grounds are often “ambiguously justified” by Greek authorities. Many detainees are given detention orders which state they are a “threat to national security or a danger to society,” without any reason given as to why, she said. These orders, she added, are often “in a language they don’t understand”.
Despite rules designed to prevent most asylum seekers from being detained, almost 80% of detainees interviewed by Mobile Info Team were also asylum applicants. Multiple interviewees cited a significant lack of access to legal aid and translated information, and reported only being released from detention after interventions from private lawyers. In some cases, these interventions cost up to €2000.
I Have Rights, the third organisation releasing a report today, focused specifically on the situation on Samos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey where many asylum seekers first arrive. Its main finding is that all asylum seekers – including potential trafficking survivors – are being detained for the first 25 days after their arrival on Samos for “identification purposes”. It argues that since people are provided with an identification document upon arrival, this 25-day policy “lacks a legal basis”.
Near-halt to deportations
Mobile Info Team further found that it’s not just asylum seekers who are suffering at the hands of the Greek authorities. Third-country nationals – foreigners who have not claimed asylum, or who have had an asylum claim rejected – are experiencing long detentions on the grounds that they will be deported. This is despite almost no deportations currently being carried out by Greece.
Migrants who have not claimed asylum in Greece are detained under different rules to asylum seekers. But their detention should still only occur under specific conditions according to EU law. Those conditions state that third-country nationals can be detained only as an exceptional measure and if there is a “reasonable prospect of removal.” However, since 2020, a succession of amendments to Greek law and changes in practice have seen the detention of third-country nationals go from exceptional measure to routine policy.
These changes mean that foreigners are being detained as standard practice, yet are almost never deported. In a key finding from their report, Mobile Info Team say that less than 5% of most nationalities with return orders in Greek detention are actually being returned to their home countries.
We were not allowed to go out on a walk or get some fresh air or even see the sun.
Greece’s low deportation figures partly result from a lack of return agreements with the countries of origin of many detainees. This means that many cannot be sent back directly. Another reason is the EU-Turkey agreement, signed in 2016.
As part of this agreement, Turkey was declared a safe country for Syrians and Afghans – two of the major groups arriving in Greece to claim asylum – and Ankara agreed to accept their return to Turkey. In 2021, Greece extended that decision to people from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia. As a result, Greece no longer considers whether asylum seekers from these five nationalities are safe in their home countries. Instead, it requires them to prove that they are not safe in Turkey in order to claim asylum in Greece.
This policy is still in place. But, since the pandemic started in March 2020, Turkey has not accepted any formal returns of rejected asylum seekers. This has thrown thousands into limbo and caused “immeasurable suffering”, according to a report last year by the International Rescue Committee.
Since there is currently no prospect of deportation for the vast majority of people in pre-removal centres, Mobile Info Team argues that there are serious doubts about the legality of their continued detention.
‘I had already suffered enough’
Aram, 28, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a Kurdish-Iranian who arrived in Greece in July 2021 seeking safety. He said he didn’t initially apply for asylum because he didn’t know what his rights were in Greece.
Much like Hosseini, Aram was arrested in Athens a few weeks after arriving. He said he spent approximately one year in detention before being released with the help of a lawyer. Of that time, he said 104 days were spent locked up with dozens of others in a police station in the town of Oropos. According to EU law, immigration detainees should not be held in facilities such as police stations for longer than 24 hours.
“We were not allowed to go out on a walk or get some fresh air or even see the sun,” Aram said. After 100 days of captivity, Aram said he went on hunger strike with two other detainees. Four days later they were transferred. Like Hosseini, they went first to Amygdaleza and then to Corinth.
Aram described being held in a room with only 20 beds for 40 people in Corinth, and witnessing guards taking detainees outside to beat them on multiple occasions. “I got arrested once in Iran, and I always thought that was hell,” he said. “But Corinth was worse.”
Hope Barker, Senior Policy Analyst for BVMN, corroborated Aram’s and Hosseini’s claims that violence is often inflicted in detention as a “punishment” for “bad behaviour”. She said it occurs in places away from camera surveillance, referred to in their report as “dark rooms.”
BVMN’s report argues that the “severe and structural” violence occurring in Greek detention centres corresponds with the violence occurring on Europe’s borders, and particularly that of illegal pushbacks. Barker explained that some individuals have even reported being “pushed back directly from pre-removal detention centres”, in a process she described as “coordinated by state authorities”. Pushbacks are unlawful returns of migrants and asylum seekers, which members of the European parliament, NGOs and lawyers say Greece has been carrying out “with impunity” for years.
Detention in reception facilities
Despite concerns, a new pre-removal detention centre is set to open on the island of Samos, inside an existing closed reception facility. This would be like opening “another prison inside a prison-like structure,” said Ella Dodd, the legal coordinator for I Have Rights.
The current Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) accommodating asylum seekers on Samos was built one and a half years ago with EU funds. It has been described as “heavily fortified” by Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees.
In their report, I Have Rights reference asylum seekers’ accounts of police violence in the quarantine section of the CCAC, which was operational until November 2022. These include “forced stripping and beating, beatings in the dark, kicks, punches, slaps or multiple police officers beating one person at a time”.
Many asylum seekers accommodated in the CCAC are extremely vulnerable and include people “who have been sex trafficked or labour trafficked on their way to Greece,” said Dodd.
“Don’t be fooled that these new structures are a humane or a superior approach to the horrors that we’ve seen [in the old centres],” she said. “We have seen time and time again [that] Greece is the testing ground for other member states with how they choose to manage migration […] and this has to stop here.”
The European Commission announced last month that it is pursuing infringement measures over how Greece manages its reception of asylum seekers. This means the EU could take Greece to court for its detention of asylum seekers, including potentially in the EU-funded CCACs.
openDemocracy contacted the Hellenic Ministry of Migration and Asylum to request a comment regarding the allegations in the reports. The ministry declined to comment and directed the request to the Hellenic Ministry of Citizen Protection, which at the time of publishing had not responded to the request to comment.
Detention as a deterrent
The absence of state-funded legal aid, changing legislation, long waits without documents, and no individual assessments are all “issues of concern” when it comes to detention practices, said Alexandros Konstantinou, an attorney for the Greek Council for Refugees.
Konstantinou believes these issues are not simple oversights by Greece. “This is a measure of deterrence,” he said. Louis, the advocacy officer at Mobile Info Team, agrees. “[Pre-removal detention] is an intimidation tactic but also a deterrent,” she said. "It forms part of a much broader tactic of deliberative rights abuses aimed at preventing migration flows into the country."
For Hosseini and Aram, their experiences in detention did not encourage them to stay in Greece: they both left within weeks of being released. Hosseini now resides in the UK and Aram is in Germany. Both have claimed asylum. While they say they are in better situations, both men are still processing the months they spent locked up in Greece, and are waiting for asylum interview dates in their new countries.
“I still have some fear they may send us to Rwanda,” said Hosseini from Home Office accommodation in the UK. “I’m still waiting.”
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