• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Jail for asylum seekers: now an official Greek policy



1) it is a direct effort to make it harder to enter the asylum system – and therefore against at least the spirit of international law


2) what the locations to which people will be sent contain or will contain are jails, in which people will be behind barbed wire, security gates, under drone surveillance, and unable to enter or leave without specific permissions. This circular exists to jail people for ‘daring’ to enter Greece


3) it means that should people enter from Greece’s North, South or West they would have to be transported a vast distance to a jail at a cost far greater than just allowing people to apply for asylum at the first possible entry point to the country: it is not even economically good for Greece


4) the Greek government is carrying out systematic pushbacks of people from the Greek islands and Evros border region, in vast number. International law does not stop it from doing so, so why would it not push these people back as well?


On Monday (22 November), the Greek government once again altered its internal laws on refugees, in ways which – once again – significantly damage international law, and also potentially Greece itself.


The country’s Secretary General of Immigration Policy, Patroklos Georgiadis, issued a circular (a means by which the government can change the implementation, practice and effect of its laws without actually passing a new law) stating that no-one would be allowed to enter Greece and enter the asylum system via their closest, mainland, asylum office.


Instead, anyone who enters the country from any location, will be sent to either the Orestiada ‘outpost’ detention centre, close to Greece’s ‘land’ border with Turkey, or one of the five major Aegean islands, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, or Kos. Only there will they be allowed to enter the asylum system.


The circular is almost certainly designed to prevent people entering refugee camps on the Greek mainland and entering the asylum system from there.


But in that case, the question must be asked: why? Why, so long as people are exercising their right to apply for asylum through a system deliberately set up to enable people to do so, has the government decided to change the system so they cannot?


We should also note that while the Greek government has not previously had any specific law to enable this, it has systematically targeted and removed ‘spontaneous arrivals’ to Greek refugee camps – entirely against international law – by refusing to provide them with any services and in many documented cases illegally deporting them from Greece altogether.


But this circular goes further. It does not specify that no-one may enter a mainland refugee camp and apply to enter the asylum system, but that no-one should be allowed to enter the system unless they are taken first to one of the islands, or to the Evros border.


This means that anyone who arrives at a Greek airport and asks to apply for asylum, will be sent to one of the Aegean islands, or the Evros border. If someone enters from countries to Greece’s North or West, even via sea from the South, the circular demands them to be shipped to the Aegean islands or the Evros border.


The cost of doing this is certainly far great than the cost of simply allowing them to enter the system at the closest asylum office to where they enter. Again, why would this extra expense be considered positive, particularly in a country still shackled by enormous international debt and planning to sell €2.2bn of public assets to even reach the economic levels it held prior to the COVID lockdowns?


And what awaits these innocent men, women and children when they arrive in the far East of Greece?


Unfortunately, two things. One certain, the other very very likely.


The first, the certain one, is jail. The five islands named in the circular, as well as Orestiada either already have, or will soon have, prisons for people seeking asylum.


While the Greek government has been at pains to pretend these centres are not jails – and tricked some media into accepting it as fact – they are closed centres, with high walls, barbed wire, security gates, surveilled by drones, with access into and outside of the camp strictly controlled not by those who live there, but by staff paid to control it.


They are jails. For people – men, women and children – who have committed no crime.


In a report released late last week (Friday 19 November 2021), Detention as the Default: How Greece, with the Support of the EU, is generalising administrative detention of refugees Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees detail how Greece, with EU backing, is using detention as the standard for all people attempting to seek safe, decent places to live.


The report notes that seven out of ten people are put into detention if they arrive into Greece by so-called ‘irregular means’ (a phrase that has basically no meaning whatsoever when Greece and the EU refuse to provide any ‘regular’ means of entry, and close down the few that exist or are suggested) and of those, the majority are held until their asylum application is processed.


The new circular is designed to alter those figures. Instead of seven in ten, it targets the detention of ten in ten, every person who enters Greece to exercise their right to apply for asylum.


And the length of those detentions could be extreme.


While we may hope – in part because of the extraordinarily large number of illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek government since 1 March 2020 – that the ‘pressure’ on the Greek Asylum Service is now much lower than in recent years, as recently as 2019, new arrivals to Greece were advised that it could take five years for their applications to be processed.


That is, not only will babies be born into detention, and perhaps stay there until they are five years old, and not only might adults who have committed no crime, be jailed for a significant portion of their lives (a 30 year-old woman would effectively be jailed for a sixth of her life having done nothing wrong), children under the age of five are now set to be jailed for as long as they have so far lived.


Once again, none of these people have broken any law.


The second, not certain, but very very likely, is that these people will – completely illegally – simply be kicked out of Greece.


As noted above, there are already several documented cases of the Greek police – at the behest of the Greek government – forcibly deporting so-called ‘spontaneous arrivals’: people who arrive at mainland refugee camps and ask to enter the asylum system from there (once again, as is these people’s actual right).


But there are also documented cases – many more than 20,000 in fact – of the Greek government illegally forcing men, women and children off the Aegean islands, or across the Evros river, into Turkish waters or territory.


In the Aegean alone, the Greek government has forced 21,078 men, women and children from the islands between 1 March 2020 and 31 October 2021. It has only registered 6,549 arrivals. Many were beaten and stripped of their possessions before being set adrift.


The Greek police and armed forces also regularly force people across the Evros river, including at the end of August a man who was so sick he died on an island in the middle of the river.


There are four fundamental truths about the latest circular from the Greek government:


1) it is a direct effort to make it harder to enter the asylum system – and therefore against at least the spirit of international law


2) what the locations to which people will be sent contain or will contain are jails, in which people will be behind barbed wire, security gates, under drone surveillance, and unable to enter or leave without specific permissions. This circular exists to jail people for ‘daring’ to enter Greece


3) it means that should people enter from Greece’s North, South or West they would have to be transported a vast distance to a jail at a cost far greater than just allowing people to apply for asylum at the first possible entry point to the country: it is not even economically good for Greece


4) the Greek government is carrying out systematic pushbacks of people from the Greek islands and Evros border region, in vast number. International law does not stop it from doing so, so why would it not push these people back as well?


The sad fact is that what awaits people now entering Greece – supposedly a civilised state, and certainly part of the richest political bloc ever to have existed, not to mention the so-called ‘home of democracy’ which prides itself (incorrectly) on having ‘invented’ concepts of hospitality to strangers – seeking safety, and decent places in which they can live, learn and work, is certainly jail, and very likely forced deportation, including violence and the real risk of death.


We simply cannot pretend any longer that this is not happening. We cannot ‘turn a blind eye’. We must demand that the EU takes action, or tells the truth about itself. We are the only people who can.

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