Reports of mass-imprisonment, violence and starvation are leaking out from Greece’s overwhelmed legal system. A new law means that police can test you, by force, for HIV, and lock you up if you are infected.
For years the country has been detaining illegal migrants who wash up on its island shores, but a growing number of reports are raising issues too serious to ignore – are people really kept 100 to a cell? Are children imprisoned for weeks in rooms with adult men – strangers to whom they are not related, that they have never met before? Are these people really denied food, burned with boiling water, and beaten viciously by under-trained, unsupervised camp guards?
And now the story thickens – Greeks are also being sent to these illegal prison camps. Drug users arrested in Athens have been imprisoned in the detention camps for undocumented migrants, placing these people in the same facilities as immigrants whose only ‘crime’ is to be a refugee. This week a new law means that people can be medically tested by force, against their will, for HIV and other disease. The police can target people they suspect are illegal immigrants, refugees, have used drugs, or are sex-workers. Forced quarantine – imprisonment – is also allowed. Today a petition is online, suggesting that police will target transgender people as the next ‘undesirable’ to be sent to these camps.
Human rights activists say that these forced detentions and abuse of camp inmates reflects a bigger, more dangerous trend in Greek society. Racist attacks and the election of far right Golden Dawn members in 2012 have fuelled this concern. Police and politicians have begun to round up ‘undesirables’ from the streets, and lock them away in brutal detention camps. Unsubstantiated reports say that transgendered people are the next target.Located on the edge of the European Union, Greece and its many islands are seen as a ‘soft touch’ for immigrants trying to gain asylum or work in France, Britain, or other EU countries. When you’ve run from war in Syria or Iraq, it seems relatively easy to cross the Mediterranean on a small, inflatable boat from Africa, or to cross from Turkey by the Evros River. But many immigrants arrive dehydrated, disorientated and sick after days at sea in the soaring heat.
Increasingly, the Greek police who spot these people simply push them back out into the water, leaving them to drown on over-crowded boats. If they do make it in, Greece is an unhappy place for migrants – racism is on the rise and ‘work’ often turns into slave labour. This year 33 migrants were shot by their boss after they demanded pay for labouring on his farm. These people may be desperate, but they’ve paid a high price to smuggle themselves and their families this far – the extortionate fees of human-traffickers and the risk of death, rape and violence are well known, but still they come.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Immigrants picked up by the Greek authorities are detained in specially built camps. These are barren places of barbed wire and bare concrete, designed to house hundreds but filled with thousands as the authorities are faced with a growing number of inmates and no money to deal with them. This camp was photographed by the author – built but never used by the government after protests from wealthy home owners in the neighbourhood – leaving others to be filled way over capacity in less prestigious areas.
Notice the tannoy system and security cameras. It is important to stop people escaping from these detention camps, and now we see why they want to. Conditions inside the centres are so awful that many have attempted suicide. Amnesty International sent its own investigator to report on the conditions inside:
“I was forewarned about appalling conditions, but nothing could have prepared me for this. How can such places exist in this day and age, in Europe? Detention facilities surrounded by barbed wire; filthy, cold and damp cells where people spend months, going days on end without any exercise; toilets and showers where some detainees explain they have to hold their breaths not to faint due to the smell.
In Tychero, migrants and refugees talk to us through the small viewing window on the black steel door of their cell. When we tell them that we’re not allowed inside their cells, one says “I’ll tell you why they don’t let you in; no human being can stay here. A dog cannot live here. We eat, sit, sleep, shit here, and we look out of this window. They don’t want you to see how we live here.”
The world has watched as Greece, a beautiful and culturally vibrant country, has been crippled by economic recession in Europe. Public service workers – like high school teachers – took pay cuts of up to 40%. Orphanages in Athens started taking in ‘economic orphans‘ – children whose parents had lost their jobs to recession, and could no longer afford meals or clothing for their family. But how can this country, the birth place of European civilisation, have fallen so catastrophically to barbaric decline?