By Irem Arf Rayfield, Researcher on Refugee and Migrants’ Rights in Europe
Flying back from our research mission in Greece, I can’t shake off the image of exhaustion in the eyes of the newly arrived migrants on the island of Lesvos when describing their dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea.
The same fatigue was shared by Syrian women we met in Athens – forced to leave their loved ones behind when they fled to Greece – where they now live in fear of racist attacks and the perils for their children in a merciless urban setting.
And finally the suffering of migrants and refugees held for months in the detention centres and police stations in north-eastern Greece, where our mission came to an end.
Migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and destitution have been funnelled towards this area where the Evros River marks the Greece-Turkey border and Europe’s frontier.
The mass movement of people has been met with a massive security response. In August 2012, 1,800 police officers were deployed to the border to crack down on irregular migration under Operation Aspida (Shield) and a 10.5km fence north of the Evros River was erected later in the year.
“Almost no one can cross anymore,” the police in the region tell us proudly. “There has been only one drowning this year so far.” Operation Aspida might have contributed to the decrease in deaths to drowning and hypothermia, but another tragedy continues to take place on the fertile land west of the Evros.
The very few migrants who now manage to cross the border and those arrested during sweep operations in Greek cities are locked up for months in police stations and the detention centres you can find in almost every town here.
Our throats burn from the foul air in the damp and dark cells of police stations we visit. Although the police agree that these cells were designed to hold people overnight, migrants and refugees – mostly young men, but also some women and even unaccompanied children – often spend months within their walls.
I was forewarned about appalling conditions, but nothing could have prepared me for this. How can such places exist in this day and age, in Europe? Detention facilities surrounded by barbed wire; filthy, cold and damp cells where people spend months, going days on end without any exercise; toilets and showers where some detainees explain they have to hold their breaths not to faint due to the smell.In Tychero, migrants and refugees talk to us through the small viewing window on the black steel door of their cell. When we tell them that we’re not allowed inside their cells, one says “I’ll tell you why they don’t let you in; no human being can stay here. A dog cannot live here. We eat, sit, sleep, shit here, and we look out of this window. They don’t want you to see how we live here.”
In Fylakio, they complain that their blankets haven’t been washed or changed since they arrived; some say they have been sleeping on the same mattress without a sheet for over six months.
Hygiene and health risks are a major problem. Just three months ago, we are told, a scabies outbreak affected almost all detention centres and police stations in the region. “I came here healthy, now I am sick,” says a young man who cannot stop scratching his arms, legs and head.
All complain that they are unable to sleep and that suicide attempts are not uncommon. “This place makes us crazy, no one can remain sane here,” say a group of Bangladeshi migrants in Fylakio.
Mobile phones are banned at almost all facilities. Public phones can be used with phone cards; each costing €4. People tell us that they don’t last long; one minute for a call to Somalia, possibly two minutes to Afghanistan. They are unable to receive calls from outside. A Somali man explains that he has not been able to talk to his children in Somalia for nine months because he has no money to buy a phone card.
However, migrants are more concerned about the length of their detention. Anyone can be held up to 18 months now – irregular migrants and asylum seekers alike. In another facility, a young Eritrean man interrupts his friend who was informing us about the poor conditions: “Clean rooms, clean beds, warm shower – none of that will change anything. Don’t help us if that’s all you’re going to ask for. What we need is freedom.”
“What does Europe want from us?” asks a Guinean man in one of the large detention centres we visit. “I have been here for nine months, they say they can keep me another nine. Then they will give me a paper to leave Greece in seven days. How can I arrange to leave Greece in seven days? I cannot even make a phone call here. They will just arrest me again.”
In big detention facilities like Fylakio and Komotini, the tension is palpable. The suffering and frustration of men and women stripped off their freedom in the many holding places in the Evros region. They cry that they are not criminals. An Afghan man asks me: “We haven’t killed anyone, we didn’t rob any place; so why are we being punished like this? For just lacking a piece of paper?”
Our last visit takes us to the police station in Iasmos, which is holding two unaccompanied children waiting indefinitely until space opens up in a children’s shelter. After months in Komotini, they were transferred to Iasmos to be separated from adult detainees, when they were eventually documented as children.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could spend even a day in these cold bare cells, sleeping on mattresses thrown on the raw cement floor, and even more difficult to comprehend how children could be confined here. One boy has already been here for about a month; the other a few weeks without exercise or fresh air. Both are distressed and unable to grasp why they are being held here.
Throughout our conversation one is teary-eyed while the other looks down at the floor and constantly repeats, “I am tired, I am tired.”