• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Jail for asylum seekers: now an official Greek policy? A ‘development’ on the theme…


‘by the end of the day, the government had issued an entirely new circular, which only slightly clarifies, or indeed really alters, the substantive content of the first.


‘The fact is that for all the ‘political’ gains to be made from the fact that once again, the Greek cabinet minister in charge of migration and asylum-related issues has been shown to lie outright on an issue which is in his direct responsibility, and the seeming ‘chaotic ignorance’ of what each part of the government is doing at any given moment, the revised circular still allows the Greek government to detain innocent men, women and children, potentially for the entire duration of their asylum application process.


This is in direct contravention of international law.


It also still allows the government to transport at least some people to locations from which pushbacks are not just common, but standard Greek government activity.


The ‘revised’ circular is deliberately studiously vague, and openly breaks international law.


1) The ‘changes’


We were very much in two minds about how to handle the developments late yesterday regarding the government’s latest circular(s) on applying for asylum.


We have decided to publish in full what we wrote yesterday (24 November 2021) below this summary of the ‘developments’, in part because large sections of it remain true, but also because it is far from clear the extent to which these developments have actually changed the situation.


So in brief, on Monday the Greek government’s Secretary General of Immigration Policy, Patroklos Georgiadis, issued a circular which appeared to state that new arrivals in Greece who wished to apply for asylum would be immediately moved either to one of five Aegean islands, or to the Orestiada detention centre, where they would be held until their application was processed.


This suggestion was of course utterly illegal, and the motives for it were deeply suspect. You can see below what we wrote about it.


It also inspired outrage from the political opposition parties, led by Syriza, who described it as the ‘last parody of the {circus] troupe of Nea Dimokratia regarding people movement’, as well as people living in Evros and on the islands – many of whom have already complained about the building of prisons for innocent men, women and children next to their homes – who were angered at the prospect of their government jailing yet more people who have committed no crime.


In the course of yesterday, Greece’s Minister for Migration, Notis Mitarachis, denied that such a circular even existed, though in fact it had been published by the Greek government on its official updates site.


And by the end of the day, the government had issued an entirely new circular, which only slightly clarifies, or indeed really alters, the substantive content of the first.


We will not waste too much time criticising Mitarachis for this. Chios MP Andreas Michailidis already summed up this part of the matter by commenting: ‘Double self-denial by Mr. Mitarachis. He first denied that there was a circular directing asylum seekers to the KYT of the islands and Evros. Following its publication – and the sharp announcement issued earlier by six SYRIZA-PS MPs and MEPs about the adverse consequences that this practice would have for the islands and the signal that would be transmitted internationally – it issued another circular abolishing the first! The staff state in all its glory!’


But there are significant outstanding issues.


First of all, while the new circular does appear to rule out sending all refugees to the island or Orestiada detention camps, it also appears to state that the government reserves the right to send at least some back to Orestiada, some to the islands (those who somehow manage to arrive via the Aegean and avoid being trapped in the new detention system the government is introducing: importantly, it is far from clear how the government and police force will prove that this has happened. This ‘process’ is still open to serious abuse by the authorities), and goes on to state that anyone presenting themselves to enter the asylum system can be ‘transferred to a suitable registration area’, already described as ‘a Reception and Identification Centre’.


That is, the circular does not rule out sending some people – literally all of those suspected of having arrived in Greece from the East, once again with no indication as to what, if any, evidence will have to be presented to justify such a suspicion, and absolutely no legal justification for such an act under international law – to locations from which pushbacks are very regularly carried-out.


And it specifically allows the transportation of men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work, to prison camps in Greece – in direct contravention of international law and at significantly greater cost to Greece than the legal alternative, of simply processing their claims in a sensible, civilised fashion.


The fact is that for all the ‘political’ gains to be made from the fact that once again, the Greek cabinet minister in charge of migration and asylum-related issues has been shown to lie outright on an issue which is in his direct responsibility, and the seeming ‘chaotic ignorance’ of what each part of the government is doing at any given moment, the revised circular still allows the Greek government to detain innocent men, women and children, potentially for the entire duration of their asylum application process.


This is in direct contravention of international law.


It also still allows the government to transport at least some people to locations from which pushbacks are not just common, but standard Greek government activity.


The ‘revised’ circular is studiously vague, and openly breaks international law.


Finally, make no mistake. While the Greek government may be dangerously incompetent, the first circular absolutely was what it wanted to do. And for three days, it was effectively law.


It was only the response of opposition politicians, and crucially the Greek general public and other observers, which forced the government to drop the original circular, the one it desired.


We should take heart and solace from what we have done so far, but we must also remember that the government did produce the circular it wanted, and the new one is still wildly flawed, and allows it to break international law.


2) The ‘original’ circular


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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