Greece: Lives on Hold – Migrants in Detention
Posted by clandestina on 23 June 2010
Every year tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrive in
Greece, the southeastern border of the European Union. In 2009, 36,472
irregular migrants were arrested at the Greek-Turkish land and sea
borders. Many have left unstable or war-torn countries or are escaping
persecution, human rights violations or extreme poverty. Afghans are the
most numerous among the new arrivals, followed by Iraqis, Somalis,
Palestinians, and Pakistanis. Unaccompanied minors and families are
increasingly among those making the journey. Lacking legal ways to
travel to Europe, migrants and asylum seekers alike are forced to use
the services of smugglers and thus often fall victim to exploitation or
violence by criminal networks.
Once they arrive in Greece, irregular migrants and asylum seekers are
systematically detained. They are kept in detention centers located
along the eastern Greek borders or in other detention facilities, such
as police stations. According to the law they can be detained for a
period of up to six months. Most are released within a few weeks and are
given a written order to leave the country within 30 days.
From August 2009 to May 2010, MSF provided psychosocial support to
detained migrants and asylum seekers in three detention centers: Pagani
in Lesvos, Filakio in Evros, and Venna in Rodopi. At the same time, MSF
raised concerns with the authorities, urging them to improve living
conditions and services provided in the detention centers.
With this report MSF aims to raise awareness and express concerns about
the impact of the current detention system on the mental health and
well-being of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Greece. The report
documents the unacceptable living conditions in the three detention
centers where MSF intervened and presents data from psychological
counseling sessions as well as individual testimonies. It shows that
detention can exacerbate existing symptoms and contribute to new traumas
and psychological distress. The report often cites what newly arriving
migrants told MSF teams about their experiences in detention.
Asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Greece have often experienced
traumatic events. Almost one-third of MSF patients spoke about attacks
by armed groups, bombings, beatings or other forms of violence that they
suffered directly or witnessed in their countries of origin. MSF
psychologists observed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
in 9.5 percent of the patients. A further 15 percent of the patients
expressed anxiety and worry about family members they had left behind.
However, being detained was the single most important reason of
frustration for the majority of the irregular migrants and asylum
seekers. For most, detention was a painful and inhumane experience. Of
the 305 migrants seen in first consultations, 39 percent presented
symptoms of anxiety such as constant worry, fear, panic, restlessness,
while 31 percent presented symptoms of depression, such as sadness, loss
of interest, hopelessness, and thoughts of death. Three percent of MSF
patients attempted suicide or self-harm because they felt detention was
unbearable or because they wanted to protest about the length of detention.
Living conditions in detention facilities for migrants do not meet
national and international standards. Inappropriate facilities are often
used for the detention of migrants, such as in the case of Pagani or
Venna detention centers. Overcrowding was a persistent problem in some
detention facilities. Sanitary conditions are usually very poor.
Overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions can contribute to the
spreading of several medical conditions, including dermatological
infections such as scabies and viral infections such as measles.
Not being allowed out of the cells into the fresh air was also a
significant concern for migrants. In the detention centers where MSF
worked, families were separated and were given little opportunity for
communication, which increased feelings of anxiety and insecurity.
Patients also complained to MSF teams about the degrading and abusive
behavior of police and other detention center staff.
No provisions are in place to meet the needs of vulnerable groups,
including unaccompanied minors, infants, pregnant women, and people with
disabilities. Detention centers lack support staff and interpreters.
Migrants and asylum seekers receive no or little information about their
legal status and the detention system. Moreover due to the lack of
appropriate information and the absence of legal counseling and
interpretation services, many people in need of international protection
are not identified and thus do not receive any support.
Migrants consistently complained to MSF teams that they received
inadequate medical care and had difficulties communicating with the
doctors. Reasons for inadequate health care in detention centers
included the insufficient number of medical personnel, the absence of
interpreter services, and the lack of a standard protocol for the
medical screening and follow up of new arrivals. In addition, detained
migrants did not receive any psychosocial support apart from that
offered by MSF.
MSF urges the Greek authorities to carefully measure the impact of
detention on the well-being of migrants and asylum seekers and to seek
alternatives to the detention of new arrivals. Thus, the plans by the
Greek government to establish reception and screening centers for new
arrivals should be implemented without delay. Conditions and services
provided in the reception and screening centers should be in accordance
with international standards.
In any case, the Greek government needs to immediately ensure that
detained migrants and asylum seekers are treated in a humane and
dignified manner and that those who wish to do so are given the
possibility to seek asylum.