By Ronja Pilgaard and Ditte Nygaard Larsen
In one of the police station of Pireaus outside Athens, Greece sits a man who has not seen the sunlight for more than 17 months. He is one out of thousands of irregular migrants in one of the infamous detention centres around Greece, and he has not left his cell during all these months.
Some migrants are there because they are waiting to be sent back to their countries of origin, some cannot be sent back due to what waits them if they return, and some have just entered the country and are now applying for asylum. All of them are in administrative detention. This means that while their case is being handled, they can be detained for up to 18 months.
But now some of them face even longer stays in the detention facilities. In March, the Greek State Legal Council published an opinion stating that, migrants in pre-removal centres can be detained indefinitely if they do not willingly return to their country of origin after 18 months in detention.
“Greece should immediately end the practice of prolonging detention of irregular migrants beyond the maximum period of 18 months established in EU legislation. Greece should revise altogether its policy of widespread, systematic and prolonged detention by aligning its practice and policy with current legislation, which establish that detention of migrants and asylum seekers should be a measure of last resort. Detention can have a devastating impact on people’s mental and physical health,” says Secretary General of The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Michael Diedring.
ECRE strongly urges the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection, who is in charge of the detention of migrants and refugees, to immediately withdraw the decision.
A living hell
According to the opinion, detainees will be asked to voluntarily return to their country of origin shortly before they reach the maximum detention period of 18 months. If they do not cooperate, the authorities can keep them in detention without a specified time limit, forcing them to either stay in the detention centre or to cooperate.
This strives with EU’s Return Directive, which states a maximum detention period of 6 months. However, this maximum can be extended by a further 12 months in certain cases – meaning 18 months tops.
But there has been a large increase in persons subjected to prolonged incarceration. And most of the persons in prolonged detention are there for the maximum limit of time, 18 months. So say Doctors without Borders (MSF) who has had access to the otherwise very closed facilities during the past 6 years.
“For many people in the detention centres it is not an issue to sleep in cold weather and not taking showers for months. It is the uncertainty and the indefinite detention that is the problem. You don’t know when it is going to end. Prolonged systematic detention makes the problems worse. And in these camps you don’t have proper food and proper living conditions. It really does make your life into a living hell,” says Apostolos Veizis, M.D. and Head of the Medical Operational Support Unit at MSF in Greece.
A tool of discouragement
It is not the first time Greece prolongs the detention period. In April 2013 around 2,000 inmates went on hunger strikes in detention centres protesting against the maximum period of detention being extended from 12 to 18 months.
The long detention period were by many detainees perceived as a direct attempt from the Greek authorities to discourage them from trying to stay in the country. So said the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2013.
The MSF has had similar experiences. They report of migrants talking about threats of indefinite detention, unless they cooperate with the authorities on their own forced return, or agree to a voluntary return.
Greece: We have done everything we can
According to the opinion, 7,500 migrants are currently detained pending deportation or in order to apply for a voluntary return. 300 of them have already been in detention for 18 months.
Cecilia Wikström fears that more countries will follow suit and prolong the detention period. She is an MEP from the ALDE group, and has raised concern on the matter on the Parliament. At a plenary session on April 17th on the matter of prolonged detention in Greece, she said:
“The decision taken by the Greeks comes at a time when many people have been held for a maximum period of time because they were detained in 2012 and for me it is crystal clear that this decision runs counter to the EU legislation.”
But Greece has already done as much as the country can on the migration issue, says Greek MEP, Georgios Papanikolaou, from the EPP group. Europe, on the other hand, has, according to the MEP, not done enough.
”We need an integrated migration policy with a fair burden‐sharing, that places all member states on an equal footing in regards to the respect of people’s fundamental rights,” said Mr. Papanikolaou, calling for more solidarity for Greece from the other European countries.
Threats of indefinite detention
However, the opinion may not be instated for very long. According to the ECRE, the court of Athens has ruled on May 23rd that detention for more than 18 months is illegal. This happened after a complaint made by the Greek Council for Refugees. So far one refugee has been released due to the court ruling. At least 300 are still detained – and many people are continuously detained in the pre-removal centres without reason.
“The idea is that detention centres are managing people who are going back to their home country or being deported. But the reality in Greece is that everybody is detained, including asylum seekers, people fleeing from violence, people who are victims of torture and unaccompanied minors,” Says Ioanna Kotsioni, Migration expert with MSF.
65 percent of the cases treated by the MSF are caused by or directly related to the migrants’ stay in the detention facilities.