Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Shoring Borders, Dismantling Humanity: Greece’s Detention of Asylum Seekers and the Immunization Paradigm


Rachid Benharrousse


Time to read

4 Minutes

Rachid Benharrousse is a Doctoral Candidate at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and Don Lavoie Fellow at Mercatus Center (George Mason University). He was the Research Director at Palah Light Lab (The New School & University at Buffalo). Previously with AMEWS, Berkman Klein Center (Harvard), AAMR (University of Witwatersrand), and PICT. 


This blog post analyzes Greece's widespread use of detention for asylum seekers who enter the country irregularly through the theoretical lens of Roberto Esposito's Immunization Paradigm. By examining conditions in Greek detention centers through this framework, specifically policies like indefinite detention exceeding legal limits and the arbitrary inclusion of vulnerable groups in custody, I argue Greece perceives irregular migration as an inherent contagion requiring totalizing immunization. thus, unintentionally undermining humanitarian principles through an immunizing logic that prioritizes state sovereignty over migrant rights and dignity.

artwork on a wall of two hands open

Irregularity as Contagion 

In Greece, austerity measures imposed post-2008 recession exacerbated anti-immigration stances. Right-wing populism gained traction scapegoating “outsiders” for economic woes. The Syriza government depicted irregular migrants as draining resources rather than potential contributors. Such socio-economic anxieties likely amplified perceived risks of uncontrolled migration. The 2015 “crisis” provided a flashpoint, with over 850,000 arrivals that year severely taxing Greek infrastructure and budgets. Scenes of chaotic landings and overcrowded detention stoked fears of lost control. These uncertainties synced with preexisting right-wing discourses casting any irregular entry as threat to Greek sovereignty, identity and public order. Transnational criminal smuggling rings generating billions annually also influenced perceptions (see UNODC). By portraying movement as enabled solely by smugglers rather than individual desperation, migration was discursively reframed from a policy issue into a matter of organized “chaos” (see here). Proximity to zones of conflict in Syria, Afghanistan compounded the othering of arrivals as uncontrollable “flows” versus potential candidates for protection. 

In Heaven, Hell found 

One of the fundamental tenets of international human rights is that they are universal and apply to all people equally, regardless of citizenship or legal status (see UDHR). However, there is a tension that arises when asylum seekers and migrants enter irregularly a country like Greece through Turkey. In an attempt to control migration flows and assert national sovereignty, Greece turned to detaining asylum seekers who cross borders without authorization. the annual number of asylum applicants placed in detention by Greek authorities rose sharply from 9,534 in 2017 to over 23,348 in 2019. By 2022, Detention of asylum seekers reached 11,857 (see aida). 

Roberto Esposito's Immunization Paradigm refers to the tendency of communities to establish boundaries against perceived threats by reinforcing the immunized barriers around what constitutes the political community or body. It posits that communities seek to establish an impermeable boundary against perceived threats by shoring up the "immune" firewall around what constitutes the political body. Through mechanisms like detention, borders take on an "immunization logic" that views migrants' bodies as vectors of contamination that need to be filtered out and held at arm's length. Greece has come under sustained criticism for severe overcrowding and squalid conditions in many of its immigration detention centers. The facility on Samos Island, for example, was constructed to hold 650 people but has held more than 4,000 at its peak (see Amnesty, CBC, and Infomigrants). Advocacy groups have documented an extreme lack of sanitation, limited access to healthcare and legal services, and threats to mental well-being in these overpacked sites (see aida). 

By detaining those who cross irregularly, countries aim to “immunize” themselves from the perceived disorder of undocumented entry. Detention grounds the notion that sovereign borders must be rendered impenetrable to protect the integrity of the host community. However, eschewing the “common” that Esposito argues should define communities, it politicizes mere physical movement as a challenge to statehood. The migrant is reframed juridically as an "enemy" of healthy national life rather than a fellow human seeking survival. Prolonged detention is also very common - the maximum legal period is 18 months but can be extended indefinitely with no effective avenue for appeal. As of early 2022, some asylum seekers have been held for over 3 years as Greece expanded to administrative detention of asylum seekers. This duration goes beyond what could reasonably be considered temporary while documentation is processed. The indefinite detention of asylum seekers, even beyond legal time limits, aims to immunize Greece against the perceived threat of irregular entry, treating it as a "contagion" rather than a limited security issue. According to the International Detention Coalition, “the Greek State Legal Council issued a Legal Opinion which allows for undocumented migrants who fail to cooperate in the process of return to be issued with a detention order beyond the initial 18 months limit” (Read EU Report). 


Detention as Immunization 

Detention further immunizes the political community from acknowledging its role in global asymmetries of power and wealth that propel migration. It attributes movement solely to individual transgression rather than wider geopolitical realities. In barring access to asylum procedures through prolonged custody, detention also immunizes determinations of refugee status from scrutiny. It removes migrants' subjective experience from legal consideration and treats flight itself as grounds for containment. Another challenge is the arbitrary nature of who ends up detained. Arbitrary detention of those who may qualify for protection immunizes refugee determinations from having to incorporate migrants' lived experiences. Vulnerable groups like migrant children, torture survivors, and people with serious medical issues have all been placed in custody instead of community programs (see Seattle Times; entire report). Holding vulnerable groups in custody also immunizes them by attempting to erase migrants' legal subjectivity and status as rights-bearers. At the same time, NGOs report Greek authorities have shirked their legal duty to properly identify those who may face threats if deported to Turkey (see apnews and DW). 

Although what is needed instead are communitas approaches that overcome the obsession with boundaries through inclusive practices of reception, the Greek government defends these practices as necessary for screening entrants and protecting public health and safety amid a situation depicted as out of control. Defending conditions as addressing an "out of control" situation frames detention as essential immunization against disorder rather than a limitable emergency measure. Community monitoring programs exercise oversight without casting some human beings entirely outside the circle of rights and empathy. But these conditions and the indefinite suspension of liberty they entail start to look more like an exercise in immunizing the Greek political community from the material reality of people seeking its protection. Esposito challenges us to move beyond an immunizing politics that produces "human waste" and recognize our shared vulnerability in an interconnected world requiring compassion across borders. Only then can states uphold dignified treatment for all while respecting sovereign prerogatives of control. 


For the EU to fulfill its role model promoting humanitarian values globally, reforms bringing Greek practices back into compliance with rights-based principles of proportional, limited detention are needed. Only through policy favoring communitas rather than immunization can dignity and justice be secured for all at international borders. By implementing monitored community programs as alternatives to indefinite custody, balancing security with compassion, Greece and the EU could set a powerful example of welcoming refugees with respect for their inherent worth as fellow humans. Progress on this front is critical to uphold Europe's adherence to the universality of human rights, especially equality and justice. 


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

R. Benharrousse. (2024) Shoring Borders, Dismantling Humanity: Greece’s Detention of Asylum Seekers and the Immunization Paradigm . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/02/shoring-borders-dismantling-humanity-greeces-detention. Accessed on: 13/04/2024


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