Post by Andriani Fili, Leverhulme International Network Facilitator, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

For a number of years, detention was Greece’s main policy in the management of irregular arrivals. It was predicated upon two simple ideas: The first one was deterrence. ‘We have to make their lives miserable, otherwise they will be under the impression that coming to Greece they will be free to do what they want’, the Head of Hellenic Police advised his officers. From this view, faced with the prospect of prolonged stay inside a Greek detention centre under deplorable conditions irregular migrants will be discouraged to make the perilous journey to Greece. The current refugee crisis in the Aegean, however, proves that any focus on deterrence, either in the form of fencing and gatekeeping or by making detention facilities unlivable, is willfully ignorant of the kinds of factors propelling people to move in the first place and, thus, completely ineffective.

The second one was deportation. As former Minister of Citizen’s Protection, Nikos Dendias, stated: ‘Our aim is that every illegal migrant, unless the competent authorities decide that he is entitled to international protection, will be detained until he is returned to his home country.’ The detention infrastructure formed the linchpin for the successful implementation of returns. Under this framework, Greece launched a massive operation to arrest and detain all irregular migrants in Greek territory. Once the number of arrestees started exceeding the number of places available the government engaged in a large-scale investment in pre-removal detention establishments to increase the return rate.  Nonetheless, the policy proved to be far from successful. In fact, between 2008 and 2013, Greece issued 491,411 orders to leave, out of which only 24.5 per cent on average were enforced. These orders are rarely enforced with a judicially approved deportation proceeding because most irregular migrants lack the travel documents to leave the country legally. In 2014, in the midst of its worst economic crisis and given the extreme costs of forced returns, the Greek government ceased all deportations. However, this was not accompanied by a reduction in the number of detainees; in fact, the detainee population continued to increase.

Arguably, then, the Greek detention policy has been based on flimsy foundations because the Greek state has managed neither to curb arrivals nor remove the undesirable population. Instead, detention has been employed in the most capricious and arbitrary manner. The paradox of the Greek detention policy wasn’t lost on detainees. ‘We are buried alive here. This is like a mass grave … but we are not animals, we are humans and we have human rights, no?’ male detainees at the Athens International airport detention facility pronounced firmly. In this framework, forms of resistance flourished. In some instances it was spontaneous, triggered by an incident of violence and in others it was organized in advance. Detainees often engaged in hunger strikes. Others issued statements, with the support of human rights organizations against detention practices. In other places, detainees initiated a mutiny by setting mattresses on fire (for more on this see here). The voices that demanded a change in the detention system grew stronger every day.  

In February 2015, the new left-wing government assured Greek citizens that immigration detention centres belonged to the past, committing to its election pledge to reverse anti-immigrant policies of the previous right-wing government. At a visit to the infamous Amygdaleza pre-removal detention centre following the suicide of a Pakistani detainee, then Deputy Minister of Citizen’s Protection, Yannis Panousis, saidI am here to express my embarrassment. We are done with detention centres.’ Indeed, in March 2015, the government started evacuating the centre at a rate of 30 migrants per day, amid great fanfare about the humanitarian face of the new era and, to its credit, despite fervent opposition not only by other parties but also by local residents. The aim was to close down the centre within 100 days but there was no realistic plan to rehouse the migrants. Still, it was a moment much celebrated by NGOs and human rights organisations as this was the first time a member of a Greek government spoke openly about what was going on inside detention facilities.

The Greek government’s plan was further accompanied by the announcement of a range of measures that presented an important step towards reducing the use of immigration detention in Greece. The announcement included the revocation of the Ministerial Decision allowing for detention beyond 18 months and the immediate release of persons concerned. Furthermore, action would be taken in order to put in place open reception centres instead of detention facilities. The announcement also noted that alternatives to detention would be implemented for the first time, the maximum period of detention would be limited to six months, and persons belonging to vulnerable groups as well as asylum seekers would be immediately released. A year later, in March 2016, Amygdaleza was once again at its full capacity and Greece was fast becoming a massive containing space of the thousands of refugees trapped in its islands and mainland. How can this turnaround be explained?  

In June 2015, at the same time as the government was negotiating a new bail out deal with Europe, it recognized that the boats wouldn’t stop coming. Indeed, over the summer of 2015, the numbers escalated, reaching their peak in October with 218,394 new arrivals. However, the Greek government didn’t have the resources to deal with the flow. For example, during the summer there were only four representatives of the First Reception Service to register newcomers on Lesvos, the island which received around 3,000 people per day. What is more, the Greek government did not have the political will to act swiftly to build a sustainable plan for the reception and registration of new arrivals and quickly resorted to blaming the EU for not pouring in more funds. Members of the government threatened to unleash a wave ‘of millions of economic migrants’ on Europe unless the EU helped Greece financially. Unofficially, though, this wasn’t far from the truth. Until recently, most of the new arrivals were neither registered nor fingerprinted due to severe staff shortages. Near the end of the summer, the police, that were responsible for managing the closed reception centres on the islands, opened the gates due to its incapability to provide food to all the people.

It does appear that rather than trying to impede movement like in the past, the focus was now on speeding up the flow to avoid congestion on the islands. The Greek government didn’t just turn a blind eye to this practice, but was rather actively involved by chartering ferries to take people from the islands where they land to Athens and buses to take them to train stations. The idea was that they would eventually leave Greece to reach their desired destinations. Once again, the Greek authorities didn’t have a detailed plan. This resulted in refugees and migrants congregating in squares in Athens, where the number of people sleeping rough swelled dramatically. The huge makeshift camp in Idomeni, which the Greek Interior Minister called modern-day Dachau, was constructed to hold those who were waiting to cross the border to continue their journeys through the Balkans to Northern Europe. It’s believed that more than half a million passed through the Idomeni crossing between September and the end of November. However, the idea of people being waved through wasn’t welcomed by the countries on the receiving end of the flow; for now the message was clear: Stop the flow!

As a result, the European Commission developed the idea of the ‘hotspot approach.’ The aim was to help slow the flow of migrants heading to the north and mitigate security risks by swiftly identifying, registering, and fingerprinting all arrivals in Italy and Greece. European leaders have said that ‘hot spots’ are key to securing the EU’s external borders. Furthermore, in late January the EU gave Greece a three-month ultimatum to stop migrants crossing from Turkey, or else the country would be banned from the borderless Schengen area. Austria and several Balkan countries were determined to stop migrants passing through by building rows of fences and Fyrom (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) has now sealed its southern border with Greece. With the end of the wave-through approach, thousands of migrants were stranded in Greece. Where would they be all accommodated? Firstly, amid EU pressure to deal with the situation, the five long-delayed ‘hotspot’ centers opened on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Leros, Samos, and Kos in February 2016 in order to cope with a relentless flow of people landing from Turkey. Secondly, the Greek government promised to speed up the creation of new reception centres in order to boost its reception capacity to 30,000.

At the moment, there are more than 30 emergency reception sites and five hotspots, as well as a number of informal sites, spread all over Greece, operating with capacity for 41,600 people and an actual population of more than 53,500. The government also plans to open five more reception facilities in old industrial sites in Northern Greece. In addition to these new facilities, Greece continues to use a number of pre-removal detention centres, older dedicated detention facilities, and numerous border guard and police stations. However, as a report by the Asylum Information Database argues, there is little official clarity as to what can be presented as detention facilities or reception structures. The available evidence shows, however, that confinement and detention are once again employed as an accommodation strategy for the rising number of refugees and migrants.  

For example, pre-removal detention centres like Amygdaleza, the closure of which was celebrated in the presence of the media at the beginning of the government’s term of office, have now been re-opened to house the overwhelming numbers. Under the EU-Turkey deal, which came into force on 20 March 2016, migrants arriving on the Greek islands are immediately detained in order to be individually assessed by the Greek authorities. Anyone who doesn’t apply for asylum will be sent back to Turkey, as will anyone whose claim is rejected. Implementation of the deal has presented Greece with a challenge: to separate between those already trapped in Greece and new arrivals, as the fate of the former group is not addressed by the deal. This involved emptying Greek islands of all those who crossed over from Turkey prior to the deal and transforming the much vaunted open hotspots into massive police-run detention centres to host newcomers. The amended legal framework of first reception procedures (3907/2011) further clarifies that migrants are subject to restriction of freedom of movement within the premises of these centres. The line between open accommodation and confinement often becomes difficult to draw in practice, as is the case of the new reception centres, which operate out of public sight and monitoring bodies.

Against this backdrop, Greece has been effectively turned into a massive containing space or what the Prime Minister himself has called the ‘warehouse of souls.’ Current detention practices are no different to what human rights organisations have castigated Greece for in the past; in fact, they arise from a well-known mixture of pleasing the EU, appeasing their native citizens, and attempting to deter prospective arrivals. What is relatively new, however, is the level of advanced confusion that is taking shape on the ground. Almost half of the new sites were created in under ten days, some in very remote locations with little to no access to legal aid, limited access to services and support, and hardly any information about their status. The Greek army has played a lead role in setting up most of the facilities and is providing key services. UNHCR and other NGOs have had to suspend their services at all closed facilities. Who is detained, where, for what reasons, and for how long, are issues that no one knows. It’s also unclear as to which part of the government is responsible for running the camps, rendering them open to smuggling networks. Even the Action Plan presented by the Greek authorities in the beginning of March 2016 lacks information on the authorities responsible for the implementation of certain actions and for monitoring the implementation of those actions.

Historically, no Greek government has ever shown the political will to break with the detention continuum. The left-wing government bears no exception to this. In the absence of a well-studied, concerted response, and given the overwhelming numbers of migrants and refugees, the Greek state was very quick to succumb to the EU’s models of encampment and abandon its humanitarian and leftist ideals that were its flagship almost a year ago. What lies ahead for the migrants and refugees who arrive on Greece’s shores remains to be seen; yet, human rights organisations fret over a looming bleak future for Greece’s detainees.

Note: The pictures are all taken by the author and are part of a poster-project on the streets of Athens. The short texts are excerpts from interviews with asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees in Greece that artist Tim Etchells conducted.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Fili, A. (2016) The Continuum of Detention in Greece. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/05/continuum (Accessed [date]).