Guest post by Angeliki Dimitriadi, postdoctoral research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Her research focuses on irregular and transit migration and the securitization of migration policies in the European Union.

Over the last twenty years, Greece has shifted from being a sending to a receiving and eventually a transit destination for irregular migrants and asylum seekers originating from Asia and Africa. Unprepared for the arrival of these travelers, Greece has managed irregular migration through a patchwork of short-term reactive policies, including detention. Detention has become a hot issue. The country has been heavily criticized for its overcrowded facilities and inhumane conditions of detention, as well as for the indiscriminate detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. A decade-long system of reception, asylum, and detention was effectively condemned in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision in MSS v Belgium and Greece, in which the court argued that the dysfunctions of the Greek asylum system, and the inhuman and degrading conditions of detention in the country, violated Articles 3 and 13 of the European Convention for Human Rights and deprived the asylum seeker (MSS) of his right to an effective remedy.

Amygdaleza detention facility, Athens, Greece
In response to pressure from the European Commission, in 2010 Greece submitted a National Action Plan on Immigration and Asylum, which proposed steps to improve the management of irregular migration and asylum, bringing its system into line with EU standards. Although a new Asylum Service, an Appeals Committee and a First Reception Service were welcomed changes, detention became the linchpin in the management of irregular migration, intrinsically linked with returns―particularly voluntary returns out of the detention facilities.

Detention and return are global processes, that reflect converging policies implemented by states to reestablish their sovereignty over third country nationals. Return, and especially voluntary return, is portrayed as the benevolent option―at least in the EU framework―for those already deemed to be unwanted in the territory of the State. However, we have little information on how migrants perceive and understand voluntary return out of detention facilities.

To address this gap in our knowledge, researchers on the IRMA project (‘Governing Irregular Migration: States, Actors and Intermediaries’), interviewed Afghan irregular migrants in Amygdaleza―one of the main pre-removal detention facilities in Greece. From the visits, a picture has emerged of voluntary return, as a way of escaping the punitive hand of the state; it is considered a ‘way out’ of incarceration, but not necessarily a good choice. Rather, it was the only available choice to be made. Interviewees reported high levels of confusion and a lack of information, along with the fear of time spent essentially in limbo. In a climate of uncertainty, voluntary return is presented as the salient option, when in fact if one considers the choice carefully, it’s not so much an option as a pre-determined end result. One way or another, the migrant will be returned. It’s the ‘how’ that is up for discussion.

As a pre-removal detention facility, Amygdaleza holds those deemed eligible for return. Utilizing the exception clause included in the Directive on Return, in 2013 Greece announced it would detain migrants for up to 18 months. The main argument was that the extended limit would enable the Greek state to complete the process of deportation for those it deemed eligible. Furthermore, a rather controversial amendment in 2012 specified that persons who suffer from a contagious disease, or are at increased risk of contracting such a disease, are a ‘dangerous to public order’ and may also be detained.

The Amygdaleza detention centre can accommodate around 2,000 people (Source: DW)
As a space of incarceration, the pre-removal facility is fundamentally a prison, a holding space for a specific kind of ‘criminal.’ However, if one walks amongst the different areas of the facility, the indiscriminate nature of detention becomes apparent fairly quickly. From Afghans, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to sub-Saharan Africans, Moroccans, and Algerians, migrants are detained for 18 months pending their ‘removal’ from the country.

Undocumented migrants who haven’t yet applied for asylum prior to their apprehension are arrested and transferred to Amygdaleza, from the various detention facilities where they are initially held, once their screening is completed. The initial basis for the transfer is nationality. Generally, women with children aren’t detained, yet single men and minors are. If a third country national is apprehended and considered eligible for return (i.e., does not fall in the non-deportable category of nationalities, like Syrians, Somalis, or Iraqis), s/he will usually be transferred from a detention facility (where s/he’s initially held) to a pre-removal center either to be deported or voluntarily returned.

Upon arrival at the facility, migrants are, at least in theory, meant to be informed of the duration of their detention, the option to apply for asylum and what happens in relation to their detention of the information disseminated. The ‘genius’ of the system lies in the vagueness with which it disseminates such information. The accuracy and level of information depend on who offers it (e.g., the guard, the asylum officer, the interpreter) and if it’s indeed offered at all. Sources are jumbled and so are facts. Many Afghanis who had registered for the voluntary return program stressed that they’d been told by various sources (detainees, friends, guards) that if they applied for asylum their detention time would start from zero and they’d end up spending at least 18 months in the facility. This threat dissuaded them from seeking protection, which has various implications not only in relation to asylum, but also for return, for if they aren’t categorized as asylum seekers, they’re treated as eligible returnees, a label that inexorably pushes them closer towards the option of voluntary return.

In other words, a snowball effect takes place, where detention, unclear in length and outcome, is affecting both asylum seekers and irregular migrants, with the former in some cases opting out of the asylum claim while their application is being processed and the latter never applying. In the end, voluntary return is a choice between a rock and a hard place, based on two assumptions: (1) that the migrant will be unable to legalize her or his stay and (2) that s/he can indeed return. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has repeatedly stressed that it doesn’t accept ‘forced’ returnees, and that if during an interview it becomes clear that return can endanger the person, the IOM advises the individual to apply for asylum.

Returning 'home' (Source: Greek Reporter)
Through these processes, a different type of mobility emerges: an involuntary mobility. Instead of moving forward to their original destinations, which for the overwhelming majority is a Northern EU member state like Sweden, Germany, and Austria, movement is now backwards, to their country of origin. Afghanis discuss the prospect of return as involuntary; a sharp contrast to their original migratory movement. They choose to go, but it’s not a real choice. Rather, it’s a way of escaping what they understand to be the punishable hand of the Greek state. Perhaps even more critically, they choose it because they understand that it’s a quick way out, imagining that once they sign up for the return, this will happen within a short time. Yet, in our last visit to Amygdaleza, we encountered Afghanis who were waiting for more than three months to return and who were puzzled as to why they were not sent back home, especially since they were not allowed to stay in Greece. Aware they are ‘unwanted,’ their continuous detention, despite having accepting to return, is seen simply as further punishment.

Their experiences raise many questions, not only about how ‘voluntary’ a return can be under these circumstances, but also its sustainability as a program. Abbas’s case is a good example of this. He signed his name the week previous to interview with the IOM to return home. He didn’t want to, but he explained that he could no longer afford to stay at Amygdaleza. After six months in the facility, the prospect of more time in detention frightened him. Originally planning to apply for asylum in Sweden, he refused seeking protection in Greece because he’d heard he would have to stay longer in detention and likely be rejected. He opted to return home to see his family, explaining he’d leave once more for Iran and then, ideally, migrate to Europe.

Voluntary returns are undoubtedly a humane and necessary migration management tool, designed to assist those who wish to return. However, the process acquires a different meaning when taking place in detention. It becomes more of an exercise of power over migrants, a way of reestablishing state control over detainees and pushing them towards involuntary mobility. Understanding further how migrants perceive the option of return through the lens of incarceration can, in the process, help us assess the efficacy of the policy and contribute in the calls for viable alternatives to detention for those deemed returnable.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Dimitriadi A (2014) Involuntary Mobility: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/involuntary-mobility/ (Accessed [date]).