By Ronja Pilgaard and Ditte Nygaard Larsen
“It is very dirty. The toilets are not working. The piping system is broken. Excrement is falling from the toilets on the first floor to the ground floor. People are locked up inside almost all day. We are allowed in the yard one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. And not always every day. Komotini is not a detention centre – it is a stable for animals.”
The words belong to a 28-year-old man interviewed by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). He has been detained for 7 months in the Komotini pre-removal centre – one of the most notoriously known detention centres for migrants in Greece.
During the past 6 years, MSF has attended 9,921 migrants in Greek detention centres, and estimate that more than 65 percent of the medical problems are caused by the detainment. The combination of lack of heating and proper food, overcrowding and bad hygiene conditions result in upper-respiratory tract infections, viruses and skin diseases among the detainees.
“We’ve had to respond to two outbreaks of scabies. This hasn’t happened for many years in these types of facilities,” says Apostolos Veizis, M.D. and Head of the Medical Operational Support Unit at MSF in Greece
Due to poor food and lack of exercise for the detainees, many of them get gastrointestinal problems as diarrhea and constipation. MSF has also been dealing with dental cases that cannot be solved with pain killers.
“There was a Sudanese guy, who kept asking for help, because he had a serious toothache. He did not get any help until he removed the teeth with his bare hands causing a massive bleeding,” says Dr. Veizis and continues:
“To provide medical services, we sometimes had to go into the cells and attend to the patient while other people were present. That is not humane and it is not ethical to provide medical service this way”.
Not just a medical problem
The detention centres do not only increase medical problems among the detainees. Mental health problems are also a major issue.
“The mental problems are related to the experiences from the war and their travel to Greece but they are increased due to the detention,” Dr. Veizis says.
According to him, people who have fled a war do not mind living under stressful conditions. But the uncertainty and indefinite detention are problems that make the mental health of the already exposed migrants even worse.
Against international law
The detention centres in Europe are build to manage people who are being deported, but according to Migration Expert from MSF, Ioanna Kotsioni, the reality of the detention centres in Greece are far from the original idea.
“The reality of the detention centres in Greece is that everybody is detained, including asylum seekers, people fleeing from violence, people who are victims of torture and unaccompanied minors,” she says.
The conditions people are living under are a violation of the minimum rights, and Kotsioni is concerned that international standards and European legislation are not respected, as it has become too easy to deprive people their freedom with an administrative decision.
The Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection, who are in charge of the detention centres in Greece, estimates that around 7,500 people were detained in pre-removal centres and other facilities by February 2014.
Every year, Greece receives thousands of new irregular migrants from the conflicts in the Middle-east and North Africa. From January to April 2014, the European border control, FRONTEX, captured 42.000 refugees on their way to Europe. With 90 percent of the migrants going to Europe entering through Greece, this number is substantial.
Also an EU-problem
Both Kotsioni and Veizis agree that the situation in the Greek detention centres is not solely to be dealt with by Greece. They urge the European Union to take their part of the responsibility too.
“As EU finances the operation of some of the detention facilities, and the operation of these centers are based on EU-legislation, there should be some kind of independent monitoring mechanism to make sure that people are not deprived from access to basic services like medical care, or not deprived of their dignity because of the conditions they live under,” Kotsioni says.
On the basis of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011 concerning article 3 on torture and inhumane conditions, the European countries are no longer allowed to send migrants back to Greece. It is currently being discussed, whether the same ruling should be maintained in Italy, who also face huge problems with detention centres.
It has not been possible to get any comments on the conditions in the detention centres from the politicians responsible for the EU legislation on this area, nor from the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection.