Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Explaining Immigration Detention in Greece



Time to read

4 Minutes

Detention has been a core aspect of border policing in Greece for a number of years, as successive governments have sought to deter irregular migrants and secure the nation’s borders. Greek detention policies have their roots in the early 1990s. Since then, the country has followed a series of practices based on deterrence, invisibilisation and exhaustion.

Most recently, since 2019, the Greek government has been working on its operational plan to address migration and ‘decongest’ the Aegean islands, following a post-election commitment. This strategy culminated in the announcement that the existing ‘hotspot’ camps on the Greek islands would be gradually turned into “closed” centres in order to reduce the flows of people. The plan, backed by €276 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. 

The first such facilities on the islands of Samos, Leros and Kos are already operational in remote and isolated areas with limited access to city centres and NGO services. The situation unfolding in the closed controlled centre of Samos has exceeded even the bleakest scenario. Just three months after its inauguration, it has been described as a high-tech modern prison and a panopticon for refugees. What is more, there is already a legal precedent that proves the use of illegal de facto detention in the centre. The facility in Kos, too, has been functioning as a de facto closed center since 2020 which gives rise to concerns that the Greek government’s plans could leave space for arbitrary administrative practices and violations of asylum seekers' rights.

In some contrast to the amount of national and European resources, sustained media attention and political emphasis on building border-enforcement strategies in Greece remain curiously detached from an exploration into how and why the immigration detention system in the country has ballooned and taken such a violent turn. Notwithstanding numerous reports by NGOs (herehereherehere and here), human rights organisations (here and here) and monitoring groups, detention centres in Greece remain hidden from view, shielded from meaningful scrutiny and public accountability.

It is that gap, which Border Criminologies has been trying to fill since what little evidence we have about immigration detention in Greece suggests that the difficulty in accessing these sites, has contributed to a continuum of institutional racism and violence. In this project, together with NGOs, academics, lawyers and activists, technical support from a videographer and generous funding from Public Engagement with Research Seed Fund at Oxford University, we have created five short, accessible films about immigration detention in Greece, to inform public understanding and debate in simple, non-academic language about the practice. The videos draw on years of research and document the experiences of a range of different actors in the field.

The first highlights some basic facts about immigration detention in Greece and outlines recent legislation that affects immigration detention practices. It is illustrated with rare images of detention spaces provided by Dr Lena Karamanidou, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Evros region and Petra Molnar, who has been researching border detention facilities in Greece the past years.

The second draws on a leaflet we produced together with the Greek Council for Refugees and aims to work as a valuable resource for those at risk of detention, inside detention or post-release and their families and communities that support them. Efforts will be made to translate them in key languages to make them more accessible.

The third video focuses on Lesvos as a prison island and as such, it illuminates the growing intersections between practices of immigration detention and asylum reception, which have been previously legally distinct. It presents images and videos of Moria and Mavrovouni, the camp that opened after Moria was burned down in 2020, generously provided by NGO Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid and draws on the organisation’s years of offering legal support to asylum seekers on the island.


The fourth film draws on the work of Dr. Evgenia Iliadou, who offers a moving, self-reflexive account of working and researching inside immigration detention centres, and more specifically her years of experience inside the Pagani detention facility on the island of Lesvos. She has provided never-before-seen footage from the inside of Pagani and drawings from unaccompanied minors detained on the island of Lesvos that date back to 2005.

The final video draws on a decade of research on the practice of detention in Greece and collaborations with a number of practitioners, researchers and activists in the country. It addresses the continuum of violence inside detention with unique footage provided by people on the ground evidencing abuse and ill-treatment behind bars.

In making them available online, we hope that these short films will foster a living resource hub and an accurate historical record for the growing community of academics and students the world over concerned about human rights. The videos are further 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 through activism, advocacy and litigation.

While matters look bleak, in Greece and elsewhere, as the politics of the right continues to grow, as the world confronts the economic and social costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, as wars, climate change and poverty are the reality for millions of people around the world, governments will continue to turn to confinement as a means to stifle mobility. We insist that the only moral response to mobility, must always be cage free. But in order to do so, we must first understand what goes on behind bars.


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