The issue of migrants dying in the seas around Greece gained global attention in January, when a boat carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syria capsized in the Aegean while being towed by a Greek naval vessel. Twelve migrants drowned, and those who survived alleged that the Greek coastguard was attempting to tow them back towards Turkey instead of to a nearby Greek island, and that the naval officers purposefully allowed migrants to drown. The Greek navy denies the migrants' allegations, but the UN, the EU and Amnesty have released statements expressing deep concern about the incident. The following article on revelations regarding Greek police policy towards asylum seekers in Greece was originally published before the aforementioned incident, in the December 19, 2013 issue of Hot Doc magazine.
A protest in Athens to defened the rights of asylum seekers in Greece, organised after the Farmakonisi boat tragedy. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. Some rights reserved.
People tortured by police wearing hoods, immigrants with toddlers in their arms drowning in the sea, while the Port Authorities stand by and enjoy the spectacle, floodlit by the spotlights from their boats.
It is in these terms that security is defined in modern day Greece and it is not the result of isolated decisions made by those serving in the Security Forces. The orders come directly from the political leadership in Greece of 2013. A file that HOT DOC has at its disposal reveals that tortures denounced by immigrants and denied by the Minister of Public Order, Nikos Dendias, are not only factually correct but were the result of order from the Head of ELAS himself, Nikos Papagiannopoulos. While Lieutenant General Papagiannopoulos was issuing the order ‘make their life unliveable’, the political leadership, along with the Prime Minister of the country, claim that the torture chambers they have set up are simply centres for the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
In the last year 130 immigrants have drowned in the Aegean. Suddenly the Greeks seas have filled with corpses, even though for years immigrants have taken the same route to Greece. Why is it that more and more people who are trying to leave their country arrive dead in Greece? Why is it that the 5 or 6 immigrant deaths in previous years have now become 130? In many cases HOT DOC have received reports denouncing the Port Authorities for just standing by and watching them drown, having received orders not to intervene in order to create the image of a new harsh stance towards illegal immigration in Greece which will act as a deterrent for others who might try to enter the country illegally. Among the dead there are always children. The light from the Port Authority’s craft turns on and the crew watch them drown. Those who survive and make it to dry land are then tortured by hooded police, who plunder whatever they find. Gold, money, mobile phones are said to be the booty for those police officers who carry out ‘repatriation operations’.
There are hundreds of such incidents, but the response of the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Public Order is: ‘Such things don’t happen. They are simply the accusations of those who want to give Greece a bad name.’ In the incidents we have kept track of, the facts are irrefutable and are confirmed by police officers who believe that the Police Force is no longer adhering to democratic means and legal procedures and encourages torturers and racists who are held up as carrying out ‘a national errand to save Greece from immigrants.’
The spine-chilling file
That torture rooms for immigrants do exist is confirmed by a conversation between the Head of the Security Forces and some of the top men of ELAS. The meeting between Lieutenant General Papagiannopoulos and his men took place so that he could be informed about the problems that have arisen in ELAS, particularly with immigrants. Some of his men point out the inhumane and illegal treatment of immigrants, and demand that action be taken. The Head of the Police rejects what they say about civil rights and urges the police to make their lives hell. He says the following: ‘We must make their lives unliveable, in other words, so that whoever comes to this country knows that he will stay inside. He will not get out, so that when inside he will give us details of where he’s from, his identity, so that we can send him back, and not after three months outside, because otherwise we don’t do anything. We become the perfect destination for illegal immigrants.’
What is of particular interest is that the Head of ELAS appears to consider immigrants en masse as thieves and robbers, a theory adopted by Golden Dawn, which he claims to reject. In his speech it is clear that detaining immigrants in camps is not absolutely necessary, but a political decision with the aim of mistreating those retained so that they won’t come back. The Lieutenant General says in a formulation that Nikos Michaloliakos (Leader of the Fascist Golden Dawn party) might envy: ‘and me too, if they told me that in the country I went I’d stay three months there because I’ve got nowhere else in the world to go, and you’ll stay three months inside and then you’ll be free to steal, rob and do whatever you like, fine. That’s what we were after, further detention, because they can’t be kept for more than three months. It used to be nine months and then they made it eighteen months, for what reason? We must make their life unliveable.’
‘Sir, we are the criminals’
The Head of ELAS’s exposure of this position to police cadres is calm, assured and without hesitation, even when some of the officers object. During the meeting an Officer says, ‘Sir, we are not only racists, we are also criminals. Sir, let me ask you, what have these people done to have to spend a year inside? Have they killed anyone? Have they committed a crime? These people are to be repatriated and they spend one year in detention centres without having killed anyone or committed a crime. If the worst criminal spent more than one month inside, he’d have eaten us alive.’
The Head of the Police is not put off by the protests and at some point simply repeats: ‘so what it boils down to is that with so many of them we have to build more detention centres. It’s a simple logic.’
By citing such racist and illegal tactics so openly in favour of making life unliveable for those who are protected by international agreements signed by Greece, even though he is not talking to a close circle of officers but to a wider group, it is evident that the Head of Police has political backing and is carrying out political decisions. Nor is it coincidental that the Port Authorities use the same methods of torture against immigrants even though they are not under the administration of Nikos Papagiannopoulos. Clearly there is a common political agenda from which orders are being issued, including denial and cover up of any incidents of torture that come to light.
The fish smells from the head (Greek saying)
The recent report by Amnesty International fully confirms HOT DOC’s revelations. The government has indicated that it intends to establish another ‘legal system’ in place of international and Greek law. This ‘legal system’ is introducing Greeks to racist views, perceptions of ‘bad’ immigrants and is flirting with the idea of ‘Greek superiority and racial purity’. The Prime Minister himself said in a recent speech before the passing of the Budget in Parliament: ‘And I remind you that until recently, no one in European circles dared say the words illegal immigrant! Now along with other countries in the southern Mediterranean, we have made it a priority. And also by using deterrent tactics, which until today was also forbidden.'
Antonis Samaras is proud of the fact that he is implementing tactics that ‘until today were forbidden’, while he and his party systematically speak about ‘illegal immigrants’ and not just ‘immigrants’, creating the impression that it is foreign invaders and not immigrants who have left their homelands to escape danger to their lives. And he does this in a country that has sent immigrants all over the world and continues to do so.
Before the 2012 elections, Antonis Samaras was elected on the main slogan ‘let us go forward and take back our cities from illegal immigrants.’
In October 2013, after his meeting with the Prime Minister of Malta, the Greek Prime Minister said, ‘In Greece there are as many unemployed as there are illegal immigrants and that cannot continue.’ He openly echoed what Le Pen, Nikos Michaloliakos and many other far right leaders in Europe have also mooted on occasion, that unemployment is a result of immigration.
The fact that he is an accessory before the fact and of Nikos Dendias does not exonerate the Head of the Police from moral and penal responsibilities with regard to the torture of immigrants and encouraging his subordinates to commit illegal acts. It also goes without saying that a police force that functions outside the law and humanitarian prescripts, using violence as a tool, a police force using habitual violence will not restrict its violence to the bodies of immigrants, even if this torture is extended in the name of so-called righteousness. Sooner or later, they will find other villains or internal enemies to afflict.
This article was originally published in Greek in Hot Doc magazine