Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

The other Greek crisis

Published in Ukrainian Week, 7th June 2011

Cassie Werber | London

It is clear that Pagani, the detention centre on the Greek island of Lesvos, closed suddenly. Bunks still crowd the rooms of a building designed as a warehouse rather than a prison. Cheap clothes and broken gadgets lie abandoned, while the barbed wire of the gates is rusting and brambles devour a motorbike leaning nearby. A fuse box on the front wall hangs open and below it someone has graffitied, in red and dripping letters, “Welcome to Europe.”

Greece now accounts for 90% of all detected illegal border crossings into Europe, according to EU border agency FRONTEX. Detention is one of the ways Greece has dealt with this massive immigration pressure.  In late 2010, however, the system reached breaking point. A humanitarian crisis was declared and Greece threw up its hands, admitting that its asylum system, hopelessly crippled, needed major restructuring. Europe pledged emergency aid. While a shocked public outside Greece (and a pessimistic populace) wonders how things got so bad, the question for human rights activists is whether anything is really going to change.

A man stands by a height chart

At Pagani

Hamasa*, an Afghan born in Iran to refugee parents, arrived on Lesvos in 2008. He walks through Pagani’s dank spaces recalling: I slept here; this room was for families. In the abandoned office he finds the height chart where he was photographed, a board with hand-written numbers round his neck. There is still a sheet of mug shots – men and women – tacked to the wall.

Like many other ‘irregular’ immigrants on Lesvos, Hamasa came to the island in a tiny rubber dingy such as are sold in beachfront stores. People-smugglers on the Turkish coast are paid thousands of euros to put people in such boats – usually at night and often without even a paddle – and point out the lights of Greece’s nearest islands. Hamasa was under eighteen, and therefore classified as an unaccompanied minor; exempt from detention under European human rights law. When Pagani closed following hunger strikes by detainees, Hamasa was transferred to more protective accommodation designed for young people. He was lucky. Greece has continually flouted such rules in the face of a rapidly increasing flow across the border.

The sudden and unprecedented levels of border crossing have specific origins. Five years ago, says FRONTEX, the biggest migratory pressure was on the Canary Islands. In response, FRONTEX coordinated a joint operation in that area, while Spain installed radar surveillance (the Integrated System of Exterior Surveillance, or SIVE).  Italy, meanwhile, negotiated bilateral treaties agreeing return of refugees to North African states. Between January and September 2010, FRONTEX figures show a 71% decrease in illegal maritime border crossings into Spain and Italy. A crackdown in one place, however, means more pressure elsewhere. The same figures show a 369% increase in crossings at the land border between Greece and Turkey over that period.

A mirror reflecting the Greek coastline

Greece reflected. In the distance, Turkey.

Greece was in no shape to receive such an influx. It was one of the countries hardest hit but the global financial crisis of 2008, and EU money designated to help deal with immigration had not been spent “in a timely fashion,” according to Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, Head of Equality & Citizens’ Rights at the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). “Greece’s entire immigration system had broken down, since 2008 already,” says Dimitrakopoulos.

The final blow came with its neighbour’s change in immigration rules. “Greece has a very extensive land and sea border with a third country, Turkey. Given that last year Turkey liberalised its visa policy, and allowed people from various North African countries to come into the country without a visa, the routes for irregular migration changed,” says Dimitrakopoulos. “An increasing number of migrants from North Africa, but also from all over the world, started flying into Istanbul and then taking a bus, a 3-hour drive, to Edirne, which is the nearest city, and then walking across the Greek border. It’s about a ten minute walk.”

In October 2010, an average of 245 people per day were entering Greece via the short land border with Turkey or, more dangerous, the Evros river crossing (45 people died trying to cross the river in 2010).

The years since the closure of Pagani have therefore seen, not an improvement in conditions, but a serious decline. Detention centres in the Evros region have taken over as the hotspot of trouble. In 2009, the maximum period of ‘administrative detention’ was increased to six months. A July 2010 report by Amnesty International found that Greece detained migrants “without regard to necessity or proportionality, and not as a measure of last resort.” Pregnant women, children and victims of trafficking were all detained, often in mixed cells.

Graffiti reading 'Welcome to Europe'

Graffiti at Pagani

In October 2010 Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, issued a public statement on Greece, declaring “conditions of detention clearly amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.” Detainees were kept packed together in filthy cells, Nowak reported; windowless, crowded, illegal prisons were discovered. The EU’s reaction was, finally, decisive. FRONTEX deployed a Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) to the region the following month. Its remit was extended into March 2011 and has since developed into a regular operation, Poseidon Land. In December 2010 Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs (which takes in both migration and security) visited Greece and pledged 9.8 million EUR of emergency funding.

Greece’s reaction to the public disapproval has been two-fold. It has instigated a plan of action, while also emphasising that it should not have to bear all the weight of Europe’s immigration problems. At the Police Directorate of Athens Airport, Head of Political Asylum Andreas Spiropoulos explains a new law, passed in January 2011 and due to come into effect one year from that date. It will create an immigration service separate from the police – a first for Greece – with ‘screening centres’ at the borders to replace detention facilities. The Greek system has become hopelessly clogged, admits Spiropoulos. False claimants (and unscrupulous lawyers) often make asylum claims they know are unlikely to be processed. Until they are, people cannot be forced to leave.

Greece currently has a backlog of 55,000 unprocessed asylum claims, some stretching back ten years. It also has a massive public debt. Muhammadi Yonous is president of the Association of Afghans in Greece and has lived there since 2001. Times of financial uncertainty are not the most sympathetic to non-citizens, he notes. Meanwhile, “the new asylum system was voted here from the parliament…but just on the paper,” says Yonous. “We are hopeful for that, but in Greece I think it takes a very long time to take place.” With rising social tension evident in Athens and thousands of immigrants unable to work, pay for accommodation or leave, time is in short supply.

*Names of asylum seekers have been changed.

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