The Future is Equal

Detention as the Default Report

Greece is turning more and more to the practice of administrative detention to manage people who arrive in Greece to claim asylum. This is according to the new report, Detention as the Default, from the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Oxfam. The report found:

  • An excessive use of administrative detention with nearly 3,000 migrants in detention as of June 2021.
  • 7 out of 10 irregular migrants are put in administrative detention with the majority remaining detained when applying for asylum.
  • 1 in 5 people are detained for a long period of time in police cells which are designed to only hold people for just a few hours.
  • Pregnant women, children and people with vulnerabilities are being placed in detention without the appropriate access to health care and legal aid.
  • Nearly half of migrants (46%) in administrative detention remain there for over 6 months.

The desire to make detention the norm is reflected in recent changes to Greece’s policy and practice. This is despite European law saying that administrative detention should only be used as a last resort. In 2019, the Greek authorities expanded the grounds for administrative detention of asylum seekers to include verification of identity. They also removed the need to examine alternatives to detention in certain circumstances and introduced an amendment to increase the duration of detention up to 3 years.  This approach is in clear violation of European and Greek law.

Vasilis Papastergiou, Legal expert at the Greek Council for said:

“Administrative detention is just another tool to stop people from seeking safety in Europe. While the Greek authorities refuse to look at other less severe options to detention, like frequent check-ins, the Greek courts often turn down appeals to detention, even in the most shocking of circumstances like the appeal of a heavily pregnant woman. Europe’s hands are also not clean as the EU funds the new ‘closed and controlled’ quasi-detention centres, places where migrants are left to be forgotten. 

“In Greece, the detention of migrants is the rule, not the exception. Not only is it against international and European asylum law, but it also carries with it a heavy moral and financial cost.”

Testimonies gathered by the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) expose the real story of people stuck in administrative detention.

Syrian man who spent 9 months in a cell.

The Greek authorities put Omar*, a Syrian national, into detention when he applied for asylum. Omar said: “we were locked in our cells for 22 hours a day – no mobile phone, no visits, disgusting food. We often had to beg the guards to unlock us to go to the toilet. And sometimes this was not even possible.”

The child trapped by the pandemic.

Mohammed* was a child when he arrived in Greece. He asked to join his family in another European country. His application was successful, but his flight to join his family was cancelled due to the start of the pandemic. While waiting for Covid-19 restrictions to lift, he turned eighteen and had to leave the child protection services and move into an apartment. After an incident, he rang the police fearing for his safety. Instead of helping him, the police put him in detention. He was in detention for months as the family reunification unit where unable to find him due to the Greek authority’s administrative failures. His mental health deteriorated, and he attempted suicide. Despite Mohammed’s poor physical and mental health, the authorities put him back in a cell after his hospitalisation. Following many interventions by GCR, he was finally allowed to be reunited with his family after eight months of being detained.

The detainee denied life-saving medical treatment.

Amir-Ali*, an Iranian asylum-seeker did not receive the vital medication needed to stop his body from rejecting a kidney transplant despite the detention centres doctor stating his condition was life-threatening. This left Amir-Ali fearing for his life while in detention. He is now out of detention after months of interventions from GCR and the Greek Ombudsman.

The survivor of violence still stuck in detention.

In Kos, the Greek authorities automatically put asylum seekers in detention if they come from a country with an asylum recognition rate below 33 per cent. Gloria* arrived to Kos, and as she was from Togo, she was automatically put in detention. Despite being classed as a person with vulnerabilities as she was a survivor of sexual and physical violence, the Greek authorities did not provide her with treatment. In detention, her mental health deteriorated, and Gloria attempted suicide. After being hospitalised, she was put back in detention where she remained until GCR successfully got her out.

Erin McKay, European Migration Campaign Manager at Oxfam said:

“These stories shine a light on the heartless and shocking conditions in detention. We see people die in detention from preventable illnesses and from taking their own lives out of complete desperation. We see children in detention and pregnant women. The people in detention speak of their sense of abandonment and the huge deterioration of their mental health. Detention of migrants and asylum seekers is not and cannot be the default. The Greek authorities must use alternatives to detention and not punish people for wanting to build a life in Europe.”

Notes to editors:    

Read the new report from the Greek Council for Refugees and Oxfam, Detention as the Default: How Greece, with the support of the EU, is generalizing administrative detention of migrants.

Spokespeople are available in Athens and Lesbos (English, Greek) and in Brussels (English).    

Nearly 3,000 (2,392) third-country nationals are in administrative detention as of June 2021 because they do not hold papers to be in Greece.

In 2016, the total number of persons detained was 14,864, of which 4,072 were asylum seekers. By 2019, this number had doubled to 30,007, of which 23,348 were asylum seekers. There was a decrease in 2020 (14993 people, of which 10.130 were asylum seekers). This decrease is due to the impact of the pandemic with less arrivals and restrictions on the amount of people in detention.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in two separate cases in 2018 and 2019 that the prolonged detention in police stations breaches the prohibition on torture as per Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, noting that ‘police stations per se … are places designed to accommodate people for a short time only’. Despite this, the Greek authorities continue this unacceptable practice.

Names of persons in testimonies changes to protect anonymity.   

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