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Detained and Desperate – Undocumented Migrants in Greece

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

Stories of despair were transmitted through Twitter, when politicians, journalists and anti-racism activists visited a detention facility within the Drapetsona police station in Piraeus city, where more than 100 unauthorized migrants are living in cramped, dark and deplorable conditions.

One detainee said he hadn't seen the sun for months. Another had attempted suicide.

I was part of the group that visited the detention facility outside capital city Athens on April 6, 2013. In this post, I describe the conditions of the migrants through my tweets and include testimonies from other people who also visited the facility or #GreekGuantanamo, as it was referred to on Twitter.

Protest against inhuman immigrant detention conditions in Drapetsona. Photo by author

More than 60,000 migrants have been detained in police stations ever since sweep operations, under the name of “Xenios Zeus” (ironically, the name of the Greek god of hospitality) were initiated in August 2012. Only 4,000 have been formally arrested.

Since the 1990s, Greece has become a popular entry and transit point into the EU, for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Anti-immigration, fascist groups, including the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party, have increasingly become vocal in a country with a weakened economy and few jobs. According to some statistics, illegal immigrants currently make up 10% of the Greek population.

For the second time in two months, a delegation visited this particular police station to record the conditions under which unauthorized migrants that fail to meet Greece's legal living  requirements are forced to endure.

Most members of the visiting delegation were motivated by a detailed letter [el] from George Karystinos, a member of the Antifascist Front of Piraeus, who was a part of the first delegation that visited the police station and witnessed the conditions there. What he described was utterly shocking. About 100 migrants were detained in a 70 meter-square space, some of them for more than 9 months.

Some migrants were on hunger strike after a fellow 28-year-old Palestinian detainee, had tried to commit suicide because of the conditions there, and they were allegedly beaten by police officers to end their strike.

During the first visit, one of the detainees started injuring himself in front of the committee as a way to show his despair. George Karystinos writes [el]:

The police department commander announced that the detainee who injured himself, as well as the Palestinian who had tried to commit suicide, would be set free. What was his message? You will have to attempt suicide in order to be released, and if you get lucky, you'll survive in a hospital.

Recent photo from the Drapetsona precinct detention. No windows, no outdoors. Photo posted by @eleniamorgos on Twitter

Recent photo from the Drapetsona precinct detention. No windows, no outdoors. Photo posted by @eleniamorgos on Twitter

Our visit coincided with a protest outside the facility. Twitter users present at the protest reported the extensive presence of police forces outside the police station [el]:

@Cyberela: Εχουν κλείσει τα ρολά του ΑΤ. 3 σειρές απο ματ. #greekGuantanamo

@Cyberela: Police station's shutters down. 3 rows of police special forces. #greekGuantanamo

I was also outside the police station, about to enter as a member of the committee, and tried to report what was happening on Twitter through my account @WonderMaS:

@WonderMaS: Outside the police station of Drapetsona with the Antifascist Front of Piraeus, Amnesty International, and two members of Parliament, Dritsas and Lafazanis who are just coming out of the police station.

After MP Dritsas, of the Syriza party negotiated the number of people that would be allowed inside, with the precinct commander, we entered and I tweeted:

@WonderMaS: Just came out of police station in Drapetsona, Pireaus. Immigrants there living like animals, eating twice a day, first meal at 16.00 #rbnews

@WonderMaS: One immigrant told me he hasn't seen the sun for months #rbnews

A member of the Antifascist Front of Piraeus tweeted [el]:

@eleniamorgos: Δεν σταματάει η κράτησή τους όταν περάσει ο νόμιμος χρονος, λόγω γραφειοκρατίας του αλλοδαπών

@eleniamorgos: Their detention isn't terminated even when the assigned period of time has come to its end, due to Immigration (ministry's) bureaucracy.

@eleniamorgos: 2. Δεν παρέχεται ιατρική περίθαλψη όταν νοσούν ή κάνουν απεργία πείνας

@eleniamorgos: They are not provided with any medical care when they get sick or when they go on hunger strike

The precinct chief also made clear that they are trying their best to improve holding conditions, with little or no help from the Ministry. Teseris told us that he has to bring medicine from home to cover the department's deficiencies.

@WonderMaS: commander of police dept, Teseris says this isnt a proper place to detain ppl for months, only for 2-3 days detentions #rbnews

Some of the detainees told me there are no proper health facilities, and sometimes they don't have soap. Others told me that not all police officers are civil to them, even though they don't beat them. Most of them don't have any lawyers or contacts outside, and the ones that do have legal help, told me there hasn't been any progress in their situation.

The majority seemed desperate, and were looking at me as if I were their only hope.

As I tried to have a look inside their cells, I noticed some washing hanging from clotheslines. With all their inconvenient conditions, they still try to keep their prison proper, a fact which only reminded me that these people are coming from homes and families that taught them how to be civilized and cherish dignity. For some maybe their quest for dignity, brought them to these living conditions.

Their attendant psychologist was firm on the desperation these detainees were experiencing:

Abatzidi Dionusia is a psychologist at Drapetsona police dep, said those ppl are desperate

Some of the detainees told the delegates that there was no physical violence; this time, at least, as an activist pointed out [el]:

@Cyberela: Το ότι δεν διαπιστώθηκαν ξυλοδαρμοί στους κρατούμενους στη σημερινή επίσκεψη δεν σημαίνει ότι ξαχάσαμε τους προηγούμενους. #greekGuantanamo

@Cyberela: The fact that there were no visible beatings administered on the prisoners prior to today's visit doesn't mean we have forgotten about the others #greekGuantanamo

One of the detainees also told us that since the first protest and outside visit, some things had changed, “they fixed our lights, the lamps had been off for days”. Other visitors concurred:

@Cyberela: Δριτσας: οι κινητοποιήσεις έχουν βοηθήσει την κατάσταση των συνθηκών. Οι χώροι αυτοί είναι για κράτηση το πολυ 48ωρου #greekGuantanamo

@Cyberela: [Syriza MP] Dritsas: the mobilization has helped their situation. These facilities are made for a 48 hour detention, at the most #greekGuantanamo

A few days after the visit, Mr. Dritsas announced [el] a parliamentary inquiry, demanding from the Citizen Protection Minister to call off the “Xenios Zeus” program of immigrant sweeps, that clearly results in a series of human rights violations.

Photographer Stefanos Koufopoulos published a photoset of the Drapetsona protest on the Dromografos blog. Global Voices author Asteris Masouras collaborated in editing this report and curated resources on Storify.

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

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