By Kondylia Gogou and Giorgos Kosmopoulos, researcher and campaigner in Amnesty International’s EU Team
After a three-day visit to the detention facilities of Fylakio, Ferres, Soufli and Tyhero on Greece’s border with Turkey, we left with knots in our stomachs having witnessed the appalling conditions endured by hundreds of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied children.
Cells were dirty. Toilets were overflowing. In Fylakio, both the toilets and the area where children are held were flooded. Children told us the situation had been going on for few weeks. Such conditions are degrading and if ignored could expose those detained to serious health risks.
Many of those we spoke to told of dirty blankets or a lack of them, a lack of soap and clean clothes, insufficient food and little information about how long they were going to be held. Some detainees also said they had been ill-treated.
In Tyhero and Soufli, several people were sleeping on the floor on flattened cardboard. In both stations, there were no courtyards so detainees could not exercise outside.
Fylakio has a courtyard but the people we spoke to told us that the day of our visit was the first time they had been allowed out for several weeks.
The women, men, children detained are extremely frustrated and can’t believe the conditions they are forced to live in. Many of them are angry. “Why are we locked up for so long” they ask? “We have done nothing wrong.”
Several asylum-seekers and irregular migrants were on hunger strike because of their prolonged detention. They told us that they had fled their countries looking for refuge, solidarity and human rights. “Isn’t that what Europe is all about?” they wonder.
Asylum-seekers are held for prolonged periods and those we met had been in detention for as long as three, four, even six months. Furthermore, there are still no reception structures for the identification of vulnerable groups, including those in need of international protection.
For irregular migrants, the length of detention can range from a few days to several months. According to the local police authorities, the length of detention depends on the chances of deporting them back to their own countries.
Despite their age, unaccompanied children are also detained for prolonged periods until places become available in a special reception centre for minors. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are still very few special reception centres. We met minors who had been detained for up to two months. In Tyhero, the unaccompanied minors were detained with adults.
The border-guard stations are being used to detain people for prolonged periods, despite being designed only for short-term stay.
Tyhero is an old warehouse that should not be used at all as a detention area while detention in Soufli should be halted until detention conditions meets international standards.
EU funded mobile teams of doctors, interpreters, psychologists and social workers were deployed to the area in March and April. But this is a short term measure. Furthermore, several asylum-seekers and irregular migrants told us that their requests for a doctor had been ignored. Precious legal advice services on asylum were provided by a non-governmental organization, one of the UNHCR implementing partners.
The authorities in Greece say that they simply cannot cope with the numbers. And it could get worse as the number of people crossing the border is expected to rise again this summer. About 90 per cent of the migrants and asylum-seekers entering Europe reportedly cross through Greece.
Amnesty International acknowledges the challenges that Greece is facing by mixed-migration flows in the past few years. But detention under such conditions, the continuing practice of systematically detaining asylum-seekers for prolonged periods and the detention of unaccompanied minors under such conditions are in violation of international human rights standards.
It is about time the authorities in Greece and the rest of Europe do much more about it. Enough is enough!