The hidden victims of austerity in Greece

Sarah Levy reports from Greece on the desperate conditions endured by immigrants--and the struggle to close the immigrant detention centers under a new government.

Immigrant prisoners at the Amygdaleza Detention Center greet a protest march calling for the center to be closed (Sarah Levy | SW)Immigrant prisoners at the Amygdaleza Detention Center greet a protest march calling for the center to be closed (Sarah Levy | SW)

WHEN 21-year-old Mohamed Camara died on February 20 due to untreated diabetes, he brought the toll up to four immigrants who have died in detention in Greece since the left-wing SYRIZA government came to power promising that it would immediately close all detention centers.

The Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, has been committed since its founding as a party to reversing the punitive immigration policies of previous governments. A minister in charge of immigration policy says the detention centers will be closed in about 100 days, and the government has begun releasing people from the centers at a rate of around 30 per day.

But the fact that there has been one death of a migrant in detention each week since the new government took office shows the desperation of the situation--and the urgency for closing the centers.

Two of the four deaths since the election were by suicide, and two occurred at the Amygdaleza Detention Center, where approximately 1,800 of Greece's estimated 6,000 imprisoned immigrants are currently held.

On February 10, Afghan refugee Sayed Mehdi Achmpari died from HIV after being denied treatment inside the camp. Three days later, also in Amygdaleza, 28-year-old Mohammed Nadim, who came from Pakistan and had been held in the center for 25 months, used a towel to hang himself from his bunk bed, sparking a wave of protests and riots inside.

The same week, another immigrant committed suicide in the Thessaloniki police station, and on February 20, Camara, a native of Guinea, died from diabetes after not receiving necessary treatment or adequate food.

Out of the five immigrant detention centers in Greece, the "pre-removal" center of Amygdaleza, located at the foot of Parnitha Mountain in the north of Athens, is known as the worst in terms of human rights abuses. While Greek law states that people can only be held in such centers for 18 months, some detainees have been there for up to 28 months, according to reports.

"The best way I can think to describe Amygdaleza is that it's like being in hell," Apostolos Veizis, a medic with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Athens (MSF)--one of the only organizations to provide medical treatment to imprisoned immigrants--said in an interview. "You have all these people who have been traveling through treacherous, sometimes even lethal conditions, with the dream only to protect their family and themselves, and then they get to these camps where their dreams are taken away."

Unmet basic needs, rampant disease and hopelessness have led many inmates to attempt suicide, though exact numbers are unavailable. As one MSF psychologist was quoted as saying in the 2014 report Invisible Suffering:

There are incidents when people climb on the roof and threaten to jump off. An image I will never forget is seeing these people on the roof, yelling to show their great disappointment, and then the sound of a body crashing to the ground...What I strongly recall is the sense of injustice that tortures them. They tell us: "We aren't criminals; we shouldn't be here; we can't understand why we are being detained for such a long time simply for not having a formal document."

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WHILE THERE has been regular media coverage of the conditions facing Greek citizens as a consequence of the economic crisis and government austerity measures, less is known about the effects of austerity on Greece's non-native population of refugees and asylum seekers.

Located at the southeastern edge of Europe and surrounded by extensive coastlines and relatively permeable borders, about 90 percent of immigrants who enter Europe come through Greece.

This means that the country is on the front lines of European Union immigration policy, in particular since the implementation of the Schengen Agreement, which eased border controls with the EU, consequently relying on harder and tougher policing by EU states on the border of the continent.

Refugees and asylum seekers come to Greece both as a final destination and en route to other European countries. Many are fleeing unrest and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. In 2010, over 130,000 migrants entered the country, although that number dropped to just over 77,000 in 2014 due to stricter border enforcement as well as the impact of the economic crisis and other factors.

According to MSF, the official number of foreigners living in Greece is 800,000, but this number doesn't include the estimated 200,000 undocumented migrants.

In a country of just over 11 million people, this means that together, documented and undocumented immigrants make up almost 10 percent of the population in Greece.

According to Aspasia Papadopoulou of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, as of 2004, before the economic crisis, between 9 percent and 11 percent of the registered Greek labor force of 4.4 million were foreigners, who together with migrants made up 25 percent of wage and salary earners.

Over the last year, refugees of the civil war in Syria have accounted for half of the immigrants coming to Greece. According to MSF, 32,500 Syrians entered in 2014 compared to 8,500 in 2013. Besides Syria, in the last few years, the majority of immigrants have come from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since 2008, the demographic of people coming to Greece has shifted, with more people coming from what are considered "real conflict zones"--many related to the U.S. government's "war on terror"--as opposed to previous waves of economic immigrants. According to MSF, the shift also included an increase in families, minors and senior citizens.

At the same time, because the economic crisis in Greece has driven the youth unemployment rate over 50 percent and created a widespread sense among Greeks that they have no future in their country, many young people have chosen to emigrate from Greece to find work, which has led to a "negative" natural population growth. Thus, immigrants constitute the sole source of population increase in Greece today.

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AS IS the case the world over, immigrants come to Greece with the hopes of a better future than what they experience where they come from. But what many find is nothing less than a living nightmare.

In 2011, more than 99,000 undocumented migrants were arrested crossing the Turkish border into Greece and consequently detained in police centers across the country. According to MSF, "the systematic detention of migrants and asylum seekers is being used, worldwide, as a core migration management tool... to restrict the influx of migrants and to pressure detained migrants into joining voluntary return programs."

Under both EU and Greek law, undocumented migrants may be detained in closed detention centers "for the purpose of deportation or return" for a period of up to six months, which can be extended for an additional 12 months "if conditions apply." The usual period of detention ranges between a few weeks and three months.

But things often don't get better once out of detention. If released, migrants, including unaccompanied minors, are left to survive on their own and often end up homeless. In 2012, the Guardian reported that there were around 5,000 migrants living in an estimated 500 abandoned buildings, most of which were deemed unfit for human habitation.

On top of this, undocumented migrants are not entitled to access the public health care system for anything but emergencies. Even in these cases, according to MSF, they often don't have the money required to pay for treatment and medication.

Every Friday, hundreds of asylum seekers line up outside of the Athens police building to apply for asylum and get a "pink card" that allows them to remain in the country, seek employment and receive minimal assistance while their application is processed and considered. Yet only about 40 to 50 pink cards are issued at centers across the country each week, leaving those without at risk of arrest or deportation.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:

Access to asylum remains challenging in part due to a lack of regional Asylum Service offices for processing claims and a shortage of Asylum Service staff. An individual who wants to seek asylum and is unable to register or fails to register promptly may be at risk of return and, potentially, refoulement--meaning being sent to a country where his or her life or liberty could be in danger.

Despite the efforts of the authorities to process a backlog of some 37,000 appeals under the old procedure, the backlog remains. People wishing to apply for asylum can be detained without an individual assessment or without alternatives to detention being considered. Others applying while in detention remain there at least until their asylum application is registered, which can take months.

Born in Mauritania, Ousmane Ba is one of hundreds of African immigrants who came to Greece seeking political asylum and has found himself trapped in the hell of what seems like an endless limbo. Four years ago, Ousmane was issued a paper by Greek authorities that allows him to remain in the country, but not recognizing him as an asylum seeker, does not allow him to work or travel.

He has tried dozens of times to get political asylum in Greece so he can work or leave, but has been repeatedly refused. Once, during an interview during the application process, police told him, "Mauritania doesn't have a problem. Syria has a problem; Mauritania doesn't have a problem." But before he left Mauritania, one of Ousmane's uncles was killed by the government. He finally fled after police captured and beat him for helping to organize a political demonstration.

Unable to make a living, Ousmane today sleeps in a single-room-building with 50 other adult refugees and relies on a web of churches across Athens for meals. He frequently brings back extra food and clothing in his small black backpack for other refugees who are not "lucky" enough to even have the paper that he has, and so are unable to leave their home for fear of being arrested and detained.

"What I don't understand," Ousmane said in an interview, "is, if [Greece] is not going to actually let us live here, why they won't at least give us papers that would allow us to get out. What is the point in just capturing us here? I have been living like this, in transit, for four years. I am very tired."

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IMMIGRANTS IN Greece certainly didn't have it easy before the economic crisis, but things have only gotten worse since 2008.

As the most vulnerable workers, often working low-paying jobs, immigrants were among the first to be laid off at the start of the economic crisis. On top of this, due to the way that some migrants' permits are designed, the loss of a job meant the loss of their legal status to remain in the country, putting hundreds of people who had resided in Greece for years at risk of being arrested or deported.

With unemployment climbing to past the 20 percent mark, and as immigrants became more visible, with many unemployed and homeless, passing much of their time in Athens' numerous public squares, the previous right-wing government led by former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras took the opportunity to scapegoat immigrants.

Immigrants were labeled as "criminal," "violent" and "filthy," and political leaders would refer to the "invasion," stoking xenophobic fear and hate and encouraging Greeks to blame immigrants for "taking jobs," even as most immigrants struggled to find work themselves.

One of the effects of this was to turn people toward the openly fascist party Golden Dawn. "If immigrants complain about having no work or money," Ilias Panayotaros, a Golden Dawn member of parliament told NPR, "then they should go back to their countries where they were nice and safe, and they had nice jobs and everything was perfect--in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Algeria, and everywhere."

This racist environment compounded the existing crisis for immigrants. As the Racist Violence Recording Network reported, in the first nine months of 2014 alone, 65 incidents of physical attacks in public places against immigrants were recorded in Greece, a number that is likely well below the actual number. Just in the last month, six racist attacks have taken place.

Javed Aslam, president of the Union of Immigrant Workers and leader of the Pakistani community in Greece, said in an interview that as one of the few Pakistani immigrants to speak out--because "many people are too afraid"-- he has faced numerous verbal and physical attacks:

When I talk to media or travel, people are behind me saying, "This is the last time you will travel, we will kill you, we will cut your neck," Many, many times, hundreds of times, they have said this. But I know very well that if we do not speak, if we do not demand an end to this violence, if we do not protest, then this would be the real tragedy. Because then the fascists would be strong. But when we are speaking, when we are together, then we are strong and nobody can attack us.

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THE ATMOSPHERE of open far right politics and xenophobia helped lay the groundwork over the last few years for the government to crack down on immigrants through policies aimed at rounding them up off the streets and sending them to detention facilities.

In April 2012, the government announced plans to build 30 "purpose-built camps for the detention of irregular migrants," and opened its first, Amygdaleza, just outside of Athens.

Surrounded by fencing and barbed wire, Amygdaleza consists of 250 containers that were designed to house people displaced by natural disasters such as earthquakes. The containers are between 25 and 32 square meters each and hold eight detainees, which puts them at or below the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) guideline stating that the minimum amount of space allocated to each detainee in a shared facility is four square meters.

The annual operating cost of the "center"--many people refer to it as a "camp"-- is 10.5 million euros. Today, five of these detention-specific centers are in operation across the country, while immigrants are also detained in dozens of multipurpose police centers.

The summer after Amygdaleza was opened, Samaras' government launched a sweep operation, ironically named "Xenios Zeus" after the ancient Greek god of guests and travelers. While previously most immigrants detained had been caught at the border, the new operation sent thousands of police into the heart of Athens to grab anyone who looked like a foreigner.

According to MSF, between August 2012 and February 2013, the police rounded up almost 85,000 foreigners who they brought to police stations for immigration status verification "based on little more than their appearance." However "no more than 6 percent were found to be in Greece unlawfully." Some of the people who were consequently sent to the new detention camps had been in the country for decades.

Operation Xenios was accompanied by Operation "Aspida" (Shield) and included the deployment of approximately 1,800 police officers to the border between Greece and Turkey, coupled with the construction of a seven-mile-long fence topped with razor wire, at a cost of 3 million euros.

The enforced land border has since forced many immigrants to attempt to enter via the Aegean Sea, a voyage that has led to hundreds of deaths since 2012. (Also, this report from the International Federation for Human Rights has more information on the EU policy of intercepting boats of immigrants and asylum seekers that come to Europe)

According to a study of the MIDAS Project:

The purpose of this new policy is straightforward: to secure that all irregular migrants--unless granted international protection--will be returned to their home countries. Faced with the deprivation of their liberty and without the hope of a timely release, the Greek authorities believe that migrants will be forced to co-operate and accept a so-called "voluntary" [assisted] return or indeed a forced return to their country of origin. Greece will thus succeed in reducing the overall size of its irregular migrant population. At the same time, this new policy is expected to act as a deterrent since it will "send a strong signal to third-country nationals willing to illegally enter Greece," and "warn all immigrants who do not fall under the status of international protection that they will be arrested, detained and returned to the countries of origin."

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FOR ALL the horrors faced by immigrants in Greece, the worst by far is life in the detention facilities. "It's like if you were living in the worst zoo you've ever seen," said Quin Minassian, an immigrant rights activist in Piraeus who has visited one of the camps.

In Amygdaleza, at least eight men are kept in each of the box-like containers, and they are only allowed outside for one hour a day, if that. "It's a container. You know? You're in a container. It is difficult," Mehdi, an Afghan refugee who spent eight months in Amygdaleza, said in an interview.

Other centers also rely on cramming as many people into their structures as possible, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting that in another center, 130 migrants were held in two rooms. The HRW report detailed the conditions:

Migrants had to sleep on pieces of cardboard or directly on the concrete floor... Greek guards confirmed the detainees there urinate in bottles as they do not have access to toilets. Detainees showed us a corner where they urinated. We observed guards escorting a group of migrants from the cells to a nearby field to defecate.

Although the previous government described Amygdaleza as "state of the art," there is no heat in winter and no cooling in summer. Inmates complain of lack of adequate food and have no access to medical treatment, except for in dire emergencies. Shower and toilet facilities are torturously disgusting.

As one 28-year-old man who had spent seven months in the Komotini detention center told MSF, "The toilets are not working. The piping system is broken. Excrement is falling from the toilets on the first floor to the ground floor...Komotini is not a detention center--it is stable for animals."

Another immigrant from Iraq told Human Rights Watch: "I am originally from a land of war, but I never saw suffering like I see here. Unless you faint, they will never let you see a doctor...There is no electricity and no water. We drink from the urinal."

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THE MAJORITY of medical problems that inmates suffer, according to MSF, are "caused or aggravated by the substandard conditions, the length of detention, and the lack of consistent or adequate medical assistance."

The organization's medical data from 2013-14 shows the most common complaints were: upper respiratory tract infections (24.7 percent); gastrointestinal disorders (14.7 percent); musculoskeletal problems (13.7 percent); skin diseases (8.5 percent); and dental problems (7.9 percent). Besides the lack of doctors, guards are known to demonstrate apathy regarding the spread of communicable diseases such as scabies or tuberculosis, leaving those infected in close quarters with other inmates even when the latter complain of the need to be separated.

As of this writing, Mohamed Camara was the latest victim of the detention centers' criminal neglect. After spending 18 months in the Corinth detention center, Camara was released two months ago and given paperwork that said he must leave Greece in two months. He was rearrested on February 7, and died on February 20 due to complications from diabetes after being denied basic care, although no one outside of the center was notified of his death until February 26.

"The thing about Camara is that he died because of diabetes, which is ridiculous," said Iorgos Pittas, a member of KEERFA, or the Movement United Against Racism and Fascist Threat, and the anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA. "I mean, it wasn't like he had a heart attack or something--which would still be tragic--but for something like diabetes... It shows how much the police simply don't care about these people. They just left him to die."

Unaccompanied minors have also been detained with no attention to the fact that they are underage. Additionally, disabled inmates' needs routinely go unmet. In some cases, fellow inmates have taken to carrying a person who could not walk around on a blanket or chair, when no wheelchair or assistance was provided.

On top of all of this, communication with the outside world is nearly impossible--and very expensive when it is available. Translators and legal assistance are rarely provided to inmates in need, a cause of psychological stress for many.

All of these conditions have led some inmates to conclude that death would be better than the future they have ahead of them in detention. Of those who have attempted suicide, many were reportedly told they would be released, only to have additional months tacked onto their sentence.

Yet for all the evident lack of hope, there have also been glimpses of resistance inside the facilities. Dozens of hunger strikes, protests and riots have been recorded since the detention centers were opened in 2012, many of which were violently repressed by riot police.

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WITH THE historic election of SYRIZA, many people in Greece had high hopes regarding immigrant rights. Expectations were raised further after the party selected long-time leftist lawyer and activist Tasia Christodoulopoulou for the position of Minister of Immigration Policy.

In an interview with the website news.gr in early February, Christodoulopoulou said, "These [immigrant holding] camps are incompatible with humanitarianism, the rule of law, and any sense of reason," adding that the government was considering alternative accommodation.

However, SYRIZA's coalition with the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a party that is anti-Memorandum but also anti-immigrant, has raised the question as to what extent this partnership--ANEL holds several posts in the new government, including Defense Minister--might come at the expense of SYRIZA's anti-racist commitments.

On February 16, days after the suicide of Mohammed Nadim, Alternative Minister for Citizens' Protection Yiannis Panousis announced that the SYRIZA government would close the migrant detention center at Amygdaleza in "about 100 days" and turn the facility into an "open hospitality center." In the announcement, which came after a visit to Amygdaleza, Nadim added that he was "embarrassed" by the condition of the centers.

But the fourth death in four weeks has reinvigorated the anti-racist movement to demand an immediate closure of all the centers. Compared to this crisis, this slow pace of releases is far from adequate, activists say. "We have to push now in order to free all the immigrants and give them proper papers," said Iorgos Pittas.

On February 28, about 200 mostly African immigrants rallied at Ameriki Square and marched through several immigrant neighborhoods in Athens, demanding an immediate closure of the centers and papers for all immigrants. This followed several other protests in the last few weeks, including two 300-people demonstrations outside of the detention centers at Amygdaleza and Elliniko, where women with children are detained.

On February 21, about 300 people drove 45 minutes outside of Athens and marched to the gates of Amygdaleza, before being beaten back by police armed with batons and tear gas. Protesters chanted, "Greeks are in solidarity with immigrants!" as they marched up to the fence, where they were met with a roar of cheers and applause, with prisoners pressing against the chain link fence and raising their arms in fists and peace signs (see this video of the protest).

"We are here because we want to show that all these people are human and they deserve a better life in this country," Katerina Thoidou, a member of KEERFA, said in an interview. "And we will fight together, Greeks and immigrants together to get our rights."

Many protesters expressed hope in the new government, but emphasized that the movement needed to stay mobilized. "Yes, SYRIZA has promised to close the camps, but there is also pressure from the EU," said Pittas. "So I think we cannot just wait for the government. We have to build a movement, inside and outside the camps, that can fight for an end to these racist policies."

Javed Aslam, the Pakistani community leader, echoed this point. "We have many hopes from this government, he said. "For the first time after four years, we are hearing them say they will close the detention centers. But we are here to demand they don't wait one more day. We don't want to have to remove any more dead bodies."