Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Accessing Human Rights in Immigration Detention in Greece



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4 Minutes

Post by Andriani Fili. Andriani is the managing editor and an associate director at Border Criminologies. Her PhD research (Lancaster University) aims to map the Greek immigration detention system and to record resistance mobilized against it. In doing so, it hopes to provide a critical account of state power and offer glimpses of hope about radical change.

On Wednesday 31st May 2017, some of the men detained for more than seven months in the Petrou Ralli pre-removal detention centre requested to see the director of the centre to ask about their cases and when they would be released. The detention officers refused to assist them. The men became agitated. According to official police records of the incident, an escape attempt was underway. The men were trying to break the iron doors which separated the area with one wing of cells from the rest of the detention compound. The officers on duty opened the iron doors at which point the detainees attacked them with handmade weapons. In contrast, accounts from those in detention that is supported by video footage taken from the camera situated just opposite the wing, reveals that the detention officers angered by the demands and complaints of the detainees, unlocked the doors and within seconds, six of them started beating detainees, while pushing them back inside their rooms. Two of the detainees were so severely injured that they had to be transferred to hospital. Nonetheless, a criminal case was built against the eight detainees, who participated in the ‘revolt’ (see also here).

The episode described above is not a unique case. The vast majority of detained persons do not have any information regarding their detention, nor any understanding of their legal situation. Often, the only papers handed to them explain in Greek why they are being detained. As early as in 1993, after the first visit of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, there was a reported lack of informing those detained of their rights, while access to lawyers was illusory. Twenty-seven years later, in 2020, the latest report by the CPT reiterates the same findings urging ‘the Greek authorities to take the necessary steps to ensure that all foreign nationals who are deprived of their liberty by the police under aliens’ legislation are granted the rights of notification of custody, access to a lawyer and access to a doctor and are placed in a position to effectively exercise these rights as from the very outset of their deprivation of liberty. As regards the right of access to a lawyer, this should include the right to have access to legal advice as well as, when foreign nationals are not in a position to pay for a lawyer themselves, the right to benefit from access to free legal aid.’

The lack of any information in a language they understand often leaves detained people in limbo about their future. Fighting back through demanding to know about their cases is their way of pushing the detention system to acknowledge them; it confirms their existence when all physical evidence of their existence is written away (see reports on the absence of custody records for those detained).

In November 2019, the Greek authorities formally began a process that erodes the distinctions between reception and detention, by announcing their intention to create more than 18,000 new detention places on the islands where asylum seekers are housed in camps, and by imposing automatic detention for all new arrivals. In May 2020, additional amendments to the law severely limited procedural safeguards and further extended the use of detention everywhere. Then, following the devastating fire that burned the camp of Moria to the ground in September 2020, the government announced the transformation of island camps into closed centres. Their plan, backed by €130 million of funding from the European Union, is to create two zones of fencing inside every camp, six metres apart, and to introduce biometric cards to control entry and exit, CCTV monitoring, airport-like bag screening and a secure detention facility. Camps on Samos, Leros and Kos are first in line for these changes. These developments effectively erode the boundaries between asylum reception centres and immigration detention centres, and, therefore, have much wider implications for human rights protections across the continent. And yet, due to the toxic discourse on mobility in Greece such developments continue unabated. Instead, violence against migrants has surged, with documented examples of dog hunts, beatings and torture by police officers and militias, alongside summary expulsions, and a normalisation of human rights abuses in detention centres. While human rights organisations, academic researchers and lawyers have a lot of information about what is actually happening on the ground, very little of that gets into mainstream public debate.

In a bid to fill at least some of this gap, and in collaboration with the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), we set out to create a ‘know your rights’ leaflet with information about immigration detention in Greece. Although every effort is made to ensure the information in the leaflet is accurate and up to date, it should not be treated as a complete and authoritative statement of the law. In fact, while the GCR team was working on the content, the new asylum law was being introduced, which delayed its production significantly. Therefore, the information in there should not be considered as legal advice; in fact, the leaflet urges those in detention to seek consultation with lawyers before making decisions. In simple language, the leaflet explains practical things detained men, women and children can do in order to safeguard their human rights while in detention, as well as giving some advice about post release. It also links to websites for further information and offers outlets to condemn violent practices inside detention. We hope that this leaflet can help detained people in Greece understand their cases better, as well as assisting lawyers and organisations that seek to support them. It was written in Greek and has been translated in 5 languages, EnglishFrenchArabicUrdu and Farsi. It will be available online and distributed to detainees all over Greece.

While information about their legal cases is a much-needed resource for those detained in order to be able navigate the system and give them more tools to exercise their human rights while in detention, it is important to note that this does not address the underlying racist structures upon which the detention system in Greece depends and thrives. Ultimately, the violence of detention can only be addressed if these centres and the racist system that supports them is abolished. The response to the pandemic in countries like Spain, which evicted all detention centres, shows that it is not impossible to live without these carceral institutions (see here our report on immigration detention and COVID-19 in Italy). It is our duty as activists, practitioners and researchers to build the spaces where we can imagine a future without them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fili, A. (2020). Accessing Human Rights in Immigration Detention in Greece. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/12/accessing-human [date]

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