Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Ending Up in Detention on the Island of Kos: The ‘Undesirable’ Foreigners



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6 Minutes

Post by Andriani Fili, Managing editor of Border Criminologies and PhD candidate at Lancaster University, Sociology Department. Her research focuses on exploring the history and development of immigration detention in Greece. 

In the beginning on September, under an OSF project briefly introduced here, we visited the island of Kos as part of one of the Greek National Preventive Mechanism’s (NPM) monitoring visits to the island’s confinement institutions (the pre-removal detention centre, the police station and prison, as well as the reception centre). During these visits, which enabled us to document how the NPM was monitoring such institutions, we were able to witness conditions, have discussions with the managers of the centres, speak to people in detention and meet with human rights organisations on the ground. Overall, this approach gave us a unique insight into how detention in Kos is implemented, observed and perceived by a range of different actors. This post briefly examines the detention practices by different agencies in Kos. As these would merit separate posts, I will not comment specifically on the conditions of detention or the monitoring practices of the NPM.

‘There is no space for detainees here’

Until April 2019, the island of Kos was considered a low-visibility island compared to other border locations, because it did not attract mass arrivals of foreigners (apart from the summer of 2015). It, therefore, never became an over-researched field-site. The reception and pre-removal centres, which opened in 2016 and 2017, were operating at or under capacity levels, and while problems recorded in other islands were also found there, life for foreigners and authorities alike seemed uninterrupted by (negative) publicity. This, of course, does not mean that problems did not exist, but as it was never in the spotlight of either vast humanitarian operations, or media and research attention, Kos remained an opaque spot of migration governance in Greece. In fact, before the pre-removal centre opened, irregular migrants were detained in the Police Headquarters, with very little oversight or monitoring. Conditions in this striking 1920s building, which had previously housed the fascist administration during the Italian occupation of the island, the Nazi military services from 1943-1945, and the British administration until 1947, had been described as abhorrent, tragic and unbearable. Most detainees were there for months. According to information the Police gave us, detainees were now there for a few days before they were transferred. The pre-removal detention centre operational since 2017 opened amid great fanfare about it being able to ‘deter new migration flows’. But did it?

As arrivals to the Dodecanese and Northern Aegean islands increased in the spring and continued unabated in the summer 2019, reception and therefore detention procedures were significantly burdened. The reception and identification centre (RIC) with a capacity for around 700 people, quickly became overcrowded. At the time of our visit in September 2019, the centre had reached more than 240% of its capacity levels, with more than 2,410 people residing in the camp, straining the available resources (e.g. toilets and accommodation) and services. While the Director said she was waiting for more staff to arrive from the National Public Health Organisation (commonly known in Greece as KEELPNO), the camp employed no psychologist. Indeed, support staff included only 1 social worker, 1 midwife, 1 doctor and 1 interpreter, as well as 80 administrative staff of the Reception and Identification Service. Security staff of the service were assisted by 8-10 police officers every day. As the available accommodation containers were obviously not enough for the growing population, people were living in handmade tents. The Director said she would not expand the available spaces through installing tents in a more official manner, because this would make the arrangement more permanent and as she thought there was no space to set them up anyway; effectively rendering more than the half of the existing population in the RIC homeless. When asked about the forthcoming winter, she replied that she had no information from her superiors about alternatives or plans to house the remaining population.

With a reception service unprepared, floundering and a congested camp, the authorities resorted to a population exchange between the camp and the detention centre, using the nearby detention facility as a space management tool. While until April, those detained for administrative reasons did not exceed 50, at the time of our visit, the pre-departure centre had reached its capacity. According to its Director, there were 505 available places but he would not accept more than 420. Apparently, some time ago, the facility had agreed to ‘host’ people from the reception centre for space management reasons in one of its units. Quite expectedly, people had protested against this unlawful procedure and had reportedly destroyed the property, rendering the unit uninhabitable. 

According to a report by ECRE, by the end of 2018 the ‘pilot project’, i.e. the policy of automatic detention upon arrival for newly arrived persons who belong to a so-called ‘low recognition rate’ nationality was implemented on Kos (as in Lesvos and Leros). On Kos it is only used for nationals of countries with a recognition rate lower than 33%. While the project initially focused on nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the list of countries was expanded to 28 in March 2017. As the detention manager and UNHCR representatives corroborated, however, by the time we visited, automatic detention was applied indiscriminately and en masse irrespective of nationality and refugee profile. Thus, for example, according to information we received from the UNHCR, in the beginning of September there were 87 Syrian nationals detained, as well as families with children. 

Despite what is commonly reported about smuggling trips from Turkey, people don’t just arrive on the islands where there are hotspots, reception centres or available services. As a result, a lot of new arrivals have been recorded on smaller Dodecanese islands like Symi and Kastellorizo. Those arriving are collected and transferred to Kos with an order to be housed in the reception centre. However, as they are not direct arrivals in Kos, the Director of the Reception Service, will not accept them ‘due to lack of space’ and put them through the usual screening process. Thus, they end up in detention for indeterminate periods of time. Whether they are prosecuted for ‘illegal entry’ and receive an expulsion order remains unclear. According to the Director of the detention facility, 3 days before our visit, 115 people had arrived from Symi, most were released as they had been deemed vulnerable (e.g. minors, pregnant women, health issues) and 38 remained detained under the pre-removal procedure.

In an apparent breach of reception regulations, those who are released and not admitted to the camp are left in limbo with nowhere safe to stay. We did indeed see people sleeping on the ground in the car park and in the forest outside the boundaries of the two camps. Similarly, those previously detained in the pre-removal centre and released with a geographical restriction decision, ordering the individual not to leave the island and to reside – in most cases – in the RIC, are not accepted there either. As the Director of the RIC bluntly put it ‘We don’t have space for ex-detainees here’ because apparently, they pose security risks. This position is in line with widespread rhetoric that immigrants cannot follow ‘European rules’ and are generally unruly. ‘We tell them not to fight. In Greece, in Europe if we have a problem, we go to the authorities…After some time, the police intervene and arrest them’, confirmed the Director. As the Greek Council of Refugees observed back in 2016, people who show 'delinquent' behavior or cause problems and tensions in the reception centre of Kos, are detained for public security reasons, without being legally prosecuted most of the times.

Indeed, the criminalization of alleged ‘unruly’ migrants on Greek islands has been widely documented. They are not alone. Hundreds of migrants seeking protection in Europe are immediately arrested after their arrival by boat on the Greek Islands, accused of human smuggling. According to a testimony we heard in the island’s prison, the Hellenic Coastguard looking for the people who were driving the boat, ask someone on board the rubber dinghies to switch the engine off, to use this as a sign that the person in question is indeed the ‘smuggler’. Their trials last less than half an hour. In nearly all cases, the accused migrants are found guilty. Their average sentence is about 44 years in prison that is to be served for about 19 years. The average fines imposed are over 370.000 Euros.

Partly due to the relatively smaller numbers of arrivals, Kos has been a blind spot of migration governance in Greece, leaving the authorities, namely the First Reception Service and the Police, with a great deal of discretion they use arbitrarily and indiscriminately. In this context, ‘undesirable’ foreigners, who do not fall directly into the bureaucratic procedures of the Greek state or who are deemed to be ‘troublemakers’, do not fit into either the reception or the detention centre on the island. Instead they have been tossed around from one authority to the other, while the Directors of the centres try to diffuse their personal accountability and responsibility over those people. So routine has this exchange of populations become, that in our discussions with the Directors of the centres, attention has been shifted from the morality or legality of what is happening, to the operational details of making the exchange more efficient. In this process, people end up in detention arbitrarily and when released are left to fend for themselves with very little means available.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2019) Ending Up in Detention on the Island of Kos: The ‘Undesirable’ Foreigners. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/11/ending-detention (Accessed [date]

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