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Detention of People on the Move in Greece

People on the move are increasingly vulnerable to detention, as it is used increasingly in the Greek asylum system. A 2023 report by Greece-based NGO Mobile Info Team exposed the concerning consequences of recent changes in Greek legislation on immigration detention.

In 2021, Oxfam and the Greek Council of Refugees issued a joint report entitled “Detention as Default”. In it, the NGOs acknowledge that the use of detention to limit the mobility of people on the move has become standard practice - “the default” in Greece. The report was published, inter alia following the adoption of and amendments to the International Protection Act in 2020, which expanded the grounds for detaining people on the move and allowing for increased detention time. Roughly two years after the Oxfam Report, Mobile Info Team (MIT) and Border Criminologies, published a report in March 2023, diving deeper into detention centers in Northern Greece and the realities for people on the move. The findings are deeply concerning and only confirm that detention has become a standard practice in Greece as part of a system to “manage” migration, and render people on the move invisible.

Since 2017, the number of third-country nationals subject to detention increased from 3,000 to roughly 4,000 in 2019 and 2020. Yet the number of deportations has been declining since 2018, and official deportations have rarely taken place since 2020. This means that people are stuck in a legal limbo where they are neither officially granted asylum and the permit to stay, nor officially deported (although illegal and unofficial pushbacks are increasingly practiced to facilitate removal). Thus, although no official number of people held in detention is available for 2023, it is to be expected that the number remains high. This is also confirmed by unofficial reports of NGOs working on the ground.

The detention (or deprivation of liberty, in legal terms) of people on the move is regulated by EU Law. Deprivation of liberty can be based on both criminal and administrative grounds. The grounds for criminal detention may be the use of false documents, while administrative detention is specifically related to immigration laws. Generally, the European Framework on immigration detention, determines that immigration detention should be used as a measure of last resort, where all other alternatives are not applicable, and specifies that asylum seekers cannot be detained “for the sole reason that he or she is an applicant for international protection or that he or she has entered the country illegally and/or stays in the country without proper documentation” (Article 50(1) of Hellenic Republic Law No. 4939/2022). It also strongly recommends that asylum seekers and those who are subject to deportation orders should be detained separately. The reality, however, looks very different.

The recent MIT report looked specifically at so-called Pre-removal Detention Centers (PRDCs). These are centers where people are held and deprived of their liberty in order to facilitate forced returns. Six of these PRDCS exist on mainland Greece: Xanthi, Paranesti (Drama), Corinth, Amygdaleza, Tavros (Petrou Ralli), and Fylakio, and two additional ones are located on the island of Lesvos and Kos.

Source: Asylum Information Database | European Council on Refugees and Exiles

The MIT report found that nearly 80% of those interviewed had applied for international protection and were either still in the asylum-seeking procedure or unable to go through an appeal to challenge their first rejection. Most of the respondents had not received an official deportation order or information on the legal basis for their detention. In fact, over 40% of those interviewed by MIT and border criminologists were arrested without knowing the reason for the arrest in a language they understood.

How can this be?

A number of reports, including the 2021 report by Oxfam and the GCR found that so-called public order grounds are misused to justify the arrest of people on the move. Indeed, in 2019, Greece introduced a new piece of legislation that allowed the detention of asylum applicants based on a list of grounds linked to their application, which included the risk to national security and public order. Notably, these are vague legal terms that allow authorities to issue detention orders without a proper assessment of whether there is a real and serious threat. Often, those affected are not officially informed of their accusation and the decision is based on the opinion of the authorities rather than evidence.

Moreover, the systematic lack of access to asylum procedures in Greece further forces people into vulnerability. Over the past two years, it has become increasingly difficult for people, particularly on mainland Greece, to register their asylum claim. Whereas people were previously able to register their wish to apply for asylum and make an appointment for a first interview via Skype, lodging an asylum claim is now only possible at three specific sites on mainland Greece, making it extremely difficult to enter the asylum procedure. As a consequence, third-country nationals are often unregistered as applicants and detained under the assumption that they are illegally staying on Greek territory.

Detained upon arrival - Fylakio

One of the main PRDCs on mainland Greece is Fylakio. This Center is located in the Evros region on the border with Turkey. It is a specific site, as it serves both as a Pre-Removal Center as well as a Reception and Identification Center, for those first arriving on Greek territory. However, according to the recent MIT report, the center often does not have enough capacity to host the number of people arriving and thus cannot offer proper / appropriate reception and identification procedures. Further, the report found that the Fylakio is used to accommodate those applying for asylum. As such, international protection applicants are de facto subjected to harsh conditions in detention centers without any judicial grounds.

This reflects a general approach of deterrence and intimidation, and detention is used as a means to discourage migration. In fact, NGOs working on the islands of Samos and Lesvos, where Reception and Identification Centers (RIC) have recently opened, have also raised concerns about the centers resembling prison-like facilities and affirmed the de-facto detention of those accommodated in RICs upon arrival.

In addition, people are also detained in police stations for arbitrary reasons, in many cases for long beyond the legal time limit of one month.

Conditions in Detention

Apart from the fact that the grounds for the detention of both asylum seekers and those with return orders, do not align with EU law, conditions in these prison-like structures are reported to be below any human standards for people in detention.

These conditions have been criticized by detainees and civil society organizations, and even the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), consistently noting concerning divergence from European Standards. This includes sufficient access to hygiene and sanitation facilities as well as medical and psychological care and legal counsel. On several occasions, detainees have protested the conditions in detention facilities through hunger strikes or other means.

The way detention is used in Greece as a standard element of the asylum system reflects the general move towards close control of people on the move. From the point of arrival, either at the land border in Fylakio or on the islands of Lesvos or Samos, people are subjected to detention-like facilities in the Reception and Identification or also called “Closed and Controlled-Access” Centers. Even when officially registered as asylum seekers or expressing the desire to apply for international protection, people on the move are at high risk of being detained on various, sometimes vague grounds, that may not even be known to them.

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