Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Detention Landscapes: Mapping Violence in Immigration Detention in Greece

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Post by Andriani Fili, Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Criminology and Co-director of Border Criminologies. Her research focuses on forms of violence within immigration detention facilities.

a cell in a detention facility
Cell, Athens International Airport special holding facility 

Back in 2012, I was an NGO practitioner at the airport detention facility in Athens, Greece. The project I was a part of was funded by the European Refugee Fund and the Greek state, and was focused on the provision of medical and psychosocial services to people detained in all the main detention centres in the wider Attica region. As part of my role, I was asked to interview detained people upon arrival to identify their needs, provide them with information about their detention and the asylum procedures, and, where possible, to arrange referrals to other social services upon release. One day, a young man from an African Francophone country came to our office. He had been arrested the night before. He seemed very angry and it was clear that he was trying to tell me something. Unfortunately, he only spoke French and I didn’t. All I could understand was a word he kept repeating ‘Frappé, frappé, frappé.’ Frappé in Greek means ‘iced shaken coffee.’ Naively, I thought he meant he was thirsty and was craving a cold beverage. Feeling resentful of the system that most of the time did not allow the detained people at the airport to go to the canteen on site to buy food and beverages I got up to ask the police officers to take him there. My colleagues stopped me explaining that this was not what he meant. He then showed us the still open wounds on his legs. What he was trying to tell me instead was that when he was arrested, he was physically assaulted by the police officers on duty. The violence had continued when he was brought into the detention centre.

While this confusing interaction could be perceived as simply one of many tragicomic incidents caused by the lack of a common language or indeed of available interpretation (for a more recent take on the lack of interpreters in the asylum system see here), it was my first lesson in the difficulties people in the asylum and detention system face in Greece, reporting the violence they have experienced. Throughout the 14 months that I worked at the airport, allegations of human right violations, including physical violence, became an almost daily event. Yet, the NGO did little in response, due to institutional fears about disrupting the established relationship with the authorities.

The evidence of violence inside Greek detention facilities is ample and dates back to the earliest years of the system (see here, here, here, here and here). In 1994, the first report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) stated that the delegation met a large number of persons who alleged that they had been ill-treated while in police custody; in some of these cases, the report writers noted, the severity of the ill-treatment alleged could be considered as amounting to torture. Seven years later, after numerous visits, on 15 March 2011, the CPT publicly criticised ‘the persistent lack of action to improve the situation in light of the Committee’s recommendations, as regards the detention of irregular migrants’ (CPT, 2011, p. 2). Matters were much the same three years later, leading the CPT to raise concerns about police response: ‘The lack of action by the authorities to address this issue in the past means that there are officers working in several Security Departments who appear to act in the clear knowledge that they will not be held to account if they physically ill-treat a detained person’, pointing to the culture of impunity that pervades parts of the law enforcement sector, especially police and coast guard forces, as well as of the prosecutorial and judicial authorities. Recent reports by Mobile Info Team and the Border Violence Monitoring Network, as well as unprecedented charges against law enforcement personnel working at Amygdaleza, one of Greece's most notorious detention centres, highlight yet again that very little has changed.

Fence, Amygdaleza Pre-removal Detention Centre
Fence, Amygdaleza Pre-removal Detention Centre

Under these circumstances, a series of questions arise. If there is a wide understanding that violence exists in detention facilities in Greece, why has very little changed? In other words, how can something so pervasive remain so elusive to research, and be allowed to remain so unexplored in a systematic way?

While there are harrowing accounts of the conditions inside Greek detention facilities in numerous reports, the physical and mental effects of detention on those detained, and all the legal irregularities that detention operates upon, there has been insufficient research into actual physical violence behind bars. It is rarely the focus. For example, in June 2023, I attended a legal practitioners’ conference on immigration detention in Europe and while we talked for two days about detention facilities across Europe, violence was not mentioned at all. In fact, people at the conference were quite dismissive of its existence in private conversations I had with them.  The same applies to academic literature. Apart from some notable exceptions, including the work of Evgenia Iliadou, who has experienced violence herself as an NGO practitioner in an island detention centre, the discussion rarely steers away from the apparent structural deficiencies.

Official statistics on the use of force in Greece simply do not exist and while there is an acknowledgment of isolated cases of abuse by “rogue” police officers, concerns about ill-treatment are routinely dismissed as hyperbole or as unreliable, coming from migrants who want to secure their release. In their control of research access, the authorities hold a monopoly over what constitutes the facts of detention and have become the ‘primary definers’ of the truth. Everything else is marginalised and discredited as untruth. There is limited scrutiny and public accountability. As long as criticism is ignored, minimised or disbelieved, there is little reason to act upon it. Despite multiple monitoring visits and reports of violent incidents inside the Petrou Ralli facility, the director assured me that there had been no complaints about the centre whatsoever. ‘For several years there have been no reports on the centre and the previous ones did not make specific claims to any problems. We are ok,’ he declared as he laid back on his chair.

A collaborative database

In response to my frustration about being exposed to violence and being unable to help, I sought to find creative ways to systematically document it inside the Greek immigration detention system. In line with a countermapping approach, we worked collaboratively with two civil society organisations, Mobile Info Team and the Border Violence Monitoring Network, which are dedicated to exposing conditions of detention and border violence in its many different forms in Greece and Europe.

The database, Detention Landscapes, that is published today, after more than 10 years of research and three years of close collaboration between the three organisations, documents both the active and insidious forms of violence people on the move face within diverse spaces of containment in Greece. It was funded by the ESRC-IAA, Open Society Foundations, and Wellcome Trust, and was set up by HURIDOCS. It is an interactive, open access platform, which provides evidence about human rights violations inside detention facilities building upon testimonies from people with experience of detention in the country. Engaging with narratives requires embracing partiality and surrendering to the multiplicity of truths and recognizing the value of these as narratives in themselves. Sometimes, there is messiness and maybe incoherence in testimonies but these are defining features of violence and thus part of the story we are trying to tell. This countermapping effort draws on a map we co-created some years ago together with Mary Bosworth and Francesca Esposito that included profiles on key detention facilities in Greece and Italy.

print screen image from a homepage

More specifically, the database includes:  

  • 83 testimonies from people with first-hand experience of immigration detention and 101 incidents of human rights violations

 “[The officers in Petrou Ralli] beat a lot of people. [...] They would take us to a dark place where you cannot see anything and torture us.” 27 year-old Pakistani man detained at Petrou Ralli pre-removal detention centre - full testimony

 The testimonies were collected both over the phone or in person, at community centres that provide specific services after having received consent from all the participants. All personal information has been kept anonymous and no personal details were retained from interviews to protect the identity of individuals, many of whom remain in precarious situations. Summary reports were generated from each testimony, as well as quantitative data being extracted for statistical analysis. The incidents include medical neglect, physical violence, verbal insults, hate speech, isolation, electric discharge weapons, limited access to basic rights and malnutrition.

  • Profiles of detention facilities

While initially the project focused on the 7 pre-removal centres in the country, the testimonies that were collected confirmed that migrants are indeed being detained in numerous facilities across Greece. The database currently identifies more than 45 facilities all pictured on a map (see image above). The tangled assemblage of sites, where foreigners may be confined, is evident in the different names these facilities have (legally) acquired. Some are designated as ‘pre-removal’ centres, others are ‘special holding facilities’, ‘border guard stations’ adjacent to police stations, yet others are informal, known only to the police. The institutional uncertainty over those sites that are not pre-removal and the legal vacuum in which they operate, allows for arbitrary practices; people stay in police stations for months on end, forgotten even by the authorities. The platform includes a historical overview of key facilities being used, as well as basic information about the spaces, including the provision of services. Adopting a historical approach, we show the continuum of human rights violations over the years. The overview presents the centres as they are experienced and shaped by migrants’ presence and their struggles, with information about ongoing resistance inside them. In so doing, we aim to challenge the statist gaze that produces migration maps and instead bring to the fore spaces of control that cannot be grasped within the register of geopolitical maps. The distribution of data is not equally spread among each detention centre due to logistical and geographical constraints in the research process. As such, there is more in-depth information on some centres than others.

  • More than 350 resources

This includes human rights organisations’ reports, academic literature, and online sources with useful information on immigration detention practices in the country. We are currently working on collecting legal cases and funding contracts.  

  • More than 70 rare images and videos from the inside of detention facilities

These centres have never been documented in such a way before. The images offer a rare account of what these facilities look like (see also here and here). They do not include the people who are subject to these conditions but we cannot exclude the possibility of them becoming a triggering effect for some people. Yet, this ‘digital walkthrough’ makes ‘these, often, secret lived realities more ‘real’ and less unknown.’  As other academics, who have used visual representations as a form of documentation argue, images are powerful tools to narrate stories and raise awareness but also serve as an embodied remembering of the spaces the researcher has witnessed and participants have experienced.  

By pooling these resources together and making them freely available via this new online and interactive platform, we illuminate the ingrained and pervasive nature of the violence in immigration detention systems. The database documents the behaviour of law enforcement personnel inside detention centres and establishes opportunities for legal action. While this online database will foster a living resource hub and an accurate historical record for the growing community of academics and students over the world engaged in human rights, it is also aimed at civil society actors, who operate in volatile, often insecure settings with limited resources, technical skills and infrastructure, and whose work is focused on supporting people in detention, whether this be through activism, advocacy or litigation. Information in the database will help them develop legal cases, advocacy, and strategic litigation to realise significant changes in the law, legal practice and public awareness.

Reaching out to the community

While this is a collaborative effort that draws on extensive research and brings together a wide range of resources, we acknowledge that this is a non-exhaustive and evolutional tool. Legislative changes, both on the domestic and European level, fluctuations of international mobility affected by wars, climate change and destitution, arbitrary practices of law enforcement depending on the political party in power, and hidden facilities and practices make research and providing evidence around detention a daunting task. For this reason, the database seeks to generate a community of users and contributors to make the platform sustainable in the long-run. We encourage activists, volunteers, migrants and their families and friends, researchers, practitioners and the wider public to document hidden facilities and practices, through our detention submission form (anonymously if they wish). The information provided will be rigorously reviewed by senior researchers. Moreover, there will soon be a testimony submission form available, in different languages. People will be able to share their experience in any format, written, audio or video. For now, individuals who have relevant information about human rights violations inside immigration detention facilities in Greece are welcome to contact us and discuss how this information can be included in the platform.

Future plans

Although the current database relates to practices in Greece, many of them are analogous with practices in other states. Accounts from the UK, US and Australia - to name a few - similarly describe a system of open-ended detention in appalling conditions without a clear legal basis. In fact, the UK government views Greek migration policies as a model to emulate. Detention Landscapes reiterates the need to pursue a different kind of approach to the one piloted in Greece and, as such, underscores the pressing need to assess the situation here in the UK. The database, which provokes critical witnessing, comes at a pivotal moment when hostility against people seeking safety in the UK is rising and the Illegal Migration Act 2023 highlights the fragility of (international) legality. Against this context, the database aims to facilitate trans-regional learning and maximise opportunities for advocates and lawyers in other parts of the world to access information that could strengthen their causes and filings.  

We are currently waiting to hear the results of a funding application that envisions a new collaboration with 3D artists, civil society organizations (CSOs), legal practitioners, and independent researchers to develop 3D models that provide a unique visual and legal perspective to detention centres. By making training on 3D models openly accessible to interested volunteers, we seek to strengthen people’s technical capabilities but also make hidden information about immigration detention available to the wider public. We are also in the process of applying for funds to strengthen the network we have built, work with independent researchers and activists in the field, support the work of organisations which are able to monitor these places but also expand the database to other countries to offer a comparative perspective. We are further aiming to translate the database into key languages, making it more accessible to affected migrants and their families (currently only main pages are translated in Greek). If you are interested in being part of this collaborative effort, please reach out to us.

Concluding remarks

Violence inside detention centres is not an accident. The involvement of other actors in allowing a culture of impunity is not acceptable. In the end, detention centres are not inevitable. Initiatives like this database, which seek to provoke critical witnessing, are important, especially in political times such as the one in which we live. Preventing and addressing violence means reversing the trend towards violence being normalized. By getting to know features of chronic violent contexts, people can sensitise themselves better to the many challenges of documenting such contexts.

 An Amnesty International report from 2012 stated that police violence in Greece is extended to citizens and non-citizens alike, citing a systemic problem that rarely finds effective remedy and reparation. The latest Greek Ombdusman’s annual report specifies that in 2023, 188 cases of arbitrary behaviour by law enforcement officials were investigated, out of which 76% involved police officers. These cases concern allegations of attacks on physical integrity during arrest, detention or any kind of police operations against both Greeks and migrants alike. Police violence, then, is not a matter that affects only ‘undeserving migrants’ but ‘respectful citizens’ too. Given the robust evidence, this database brings to the fore about detention’s harms and inefficiency, it is one that we should be working together to draw to a close. 

Drawing of a bird and the word freedom on a metal door
Drawing on cell door by detainee, Athens International Airport special holding facility

Note: I would like to thank the organisations Mobile Info Team and Border Violence Monitoring Network for their ongoing support and more specifically, Manon Louis, Alice Troy-Donovan, Angelika and Hope Barker for endorsing this project wholeheartedly and bringing life into it. 

Andriani's work was supported by the Wellcome Trust 226320/Z/22/Z. The database was funded by the ESRC-IAA and Open Society Foundations. 

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Fili. (2024) Detention Landscapes: Mapping Violence in Immigration Detention in Greece. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/04/detention-landscapes-mapping-violence-immigration. Accessed on: 30/05/2024

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