CORINTH — Over the last three years, Greece has been condemned 11 separate times by the European Court of Human Rights for the conditions of undocumented immigrants detained by the state.
The latest case to make news was Aug. 10, as Greek police launched a manhunt in Athens to capture migrants who escaped from the nearby detention center of Amygdaleza after a riot broke out. The unrest erupted when the 1,200 prisoners were informed that their detention could now last up to 18 months, instead of 12.
At the camp here in the coastal city of Corinth, the detainees’ living quarters speak for themselves: Prisoners linger behind high fences topped with barbed wire. They chat, hail the odd visitor and the few social workers who try to take care of about 1,000 undocumented migrants piling up in this former military barrack, 80 kilometers southwest of Athens.
These migrants are often grouped depending on their national origin and housed in large buildings with dormitories shared by some 70 to 80 people. They are allowed two walks a day, every morning and every evening. Each building has two shower cabins, accessible for 90 minutes per day.
Clothes hang from the window bars. A pair of trousers is in shreds on the barbed wire. These men — Africans, Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs — have been living here for several months, some since the beginning of August 2012, when the government launched operation “Zeus Xenios,” leading to the arrest of 80,000 people.
“This is a new Guantánamo,” one African says through the bars. “We’re being treated like criminals because we don't have documentation. We wouldn’t be worse off if we were in jail.”
Living conditions are extremely difficult in the camp, and the quarters are seriously over-crowded. “Some of the guys here with us are crazy, and there are no psychiatrists,” adds a man from Congo. “At night, we're scared.”
Another undocumented immigrant repeats several times, “As soon as I'm out of here, I'll go see a psychiatrist.”
An Algerian prisoner adds, “I've been in detention camps in France and in Italy, but this one here is the worst.”
A group of about 30 MAT officers (Greek riot police) go from building to building. Prisoners fear their interventions. They call them “robots.” One of the African inmates recounts a violent intervention that took place in the adjoining building after some of the prisoners had refused their meals and had started a hunger strike, as some had done in other camps in Greece. They are also scared of suicides. A man threw himself out of the window in April and was taken to the hospital. They have not heard of him since.
There are about 1,000 foreigners in this camp, and they can all taste the bitterness of Zeus Xenios’s hospitality. Tthe name chosen by the government for the raids on immigrants is also that of the patron of guests and hospitality. The United Nations, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights as well as several NGOs have spoken out against the way foreigners are treated. On July 9, Amnesty International’s Jezerca Tirani presented a report on how refugees were being mistreated at the Turkish border.
“When we visited the refugees in those cells, we could hardly believe we were still in Europe,” Tirani said.
Masks and barbed wire
P. has left the camp in Corinth. He was one of those arrested during the summer of 2012. He was transferred to a makeshift camp near the former airport of Elleniko, in conditions that he described as worse than those in Corinth.
“They came to arrest us at home one morning,” he recalls. “We were taken in custody. There were seven of us, and four stayed at the police station for five days before we were transferred to Elleniko.” P. says 60 people had to share one shower and one toilet, and the detainees were regularly insulted by police officers. “They would refuse to give us soap. They wouldn’t let us out. They were wearing [surgical] masks. But we had to live in there.”
P. says he was then transferred to another facility, where he was kept in a cell. He slept on a concrete bed, but it was clean and he was allowed to see a doctor and a social assistant.
He emerged as an official asylum seeker with a permit that was valid for six months. A law passed in 2011 that made it easier to grant asylum. Between 2007 and 2011, only 1,262 people obtained asylum in Greece although there were about 10,000 applications duringe each of those years. The repressive regime has become harsher still: An immigrant can be detained for a year if he is an asylum seeker, and up to 18 months if he is not.
Like others, P. tried to walk up the northern route, through the former Yugoslavia. He couldn’t cross the border, so he returned to Athens. But in the detention center in Corinth, word has spread.
“Some of our brothers succeeded,” says one African. “They now live in Austria or in Germany, and they have jobs.”
But one prisoner from Tunisia warns, “When I get out of here, the Greeks will get a taste of their own medicine. What they inflict on us is pure violence.”
An Algerian is less vengeful, and more poetic. “Greeks are stupid. They put barbed wire on their sun.”