The detainees were all desperate to speak to us. They were all Afghan men under thirty, mostly from the Hazara ethnic group, though I saw a few older men with gray beards standing behind the others. The police had picked them all up in Athens, after they had lived free in the community for different periods of time. Some told me that they had been inside detention centers for more than eighteen months — the maximum time allowed, until the law changed in 2014, that the Greek state could indefinitely detain a refugee. Some had been detained for more than two years.
The Greek Council for Refugees argued that this new directive was in breach of Greek, European, and international law. In such a toxic political climate, it was left to this group to manage the huge load on the Greek system. Spokesperson Elina Sarantou was angry about her country’s attitude towards refugees. The European Refugee Fund, as well as national and international foundations, supported her group. With around sixty staff and little public trust in NGOs after some high-profile scandals, its profile was small and funds were limited. As a consequence, the council was overwhelmed by the demand. It had only twelve lawyers and twelve social workers in a country that needed thousands more— they saw over 8,000 refugees annually. “We are running programs of legal support for victims of racist violence, by police, far-right thugs, and others,” Sarantou said, “though 80 percent of these victims don’t have legal papers so are scared of taking the cases to court.”
The sheer number of asylum seekers arriving on Greek shores has given Greece an opportunity to use both its head and its heart. Sarantou explained how the government started an Asylum Service in 2013—a small and positive step towards addressing the abuses in arbitrary detention. The UNHCR praised the move. Despite this, she said, police still saw asylum seekers as “clandestines”; the police still had an “Aliens Department.” The service was mostly funded by the UN and remained in need of more backing. The EU’s border management agency, Frontex—condemned by Human Rights Watch in 2011 for “exposing migrants to inhuman and degrading conditions”—said that eight out of ten refugees coming to Europe were entering through Greece.
The Greek infrastructure of control for asylum seekers included a first-reception center in Evros, on the land border with Turkey, which was funded by the UNHCR and the EU. It had a maximum stay of twenty-five days, and claims were assessed in that time if possible. “It’s a decent place,” Sarantou said, “though still like a prison, and you can’t leave. We oppose these facilities, as there are few rights. The state has laws that put Greeks first for employment and asylum seekers last. They should provide protection for those in need—especially minors, single-parent families, and those with health and psychological problems.”
Instead, Athens announced in 2012 that it had opened thirty new camps for immigrants on disused army sites. With countless refugees living in squalor in and around Athens—I saw many sleeping rough and in need of a good meal and a wash—it was unsurprising that the government announced the decision as a response to rising levels of violent crime. With unemployment soaring and the youth jobless rate reaching well above 50 percent, the state reacted according to a tradition of impulsiveness, lacking any long-term plan.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are wandering aimlessly through the streets,” said the former citizens’ protection minister, Michalis Chrysohoidis, “being forced to break the law, being exploited by criminal networks and deterring legitimate immigrants from staying in the country.” Authorities announced that migrants would be moved into shabby “closed hospitality centers,” to keep them off the streets and out of sight of angry Greek voters.
In mid 2014, Global Detention Project released a comprehensive list of Greek facilities that itemized over thirty central and remote locations that were mostly staffed by police—a group with a long history in Greece of assaulting refugees.
It was a strange and sad experience, standing on one side of the Corinth fence, under the glaring sun, unable to get inside the center, and exchanging halting words with caged men. Everyone wanted to talk to us—to share their stories, explain their pain, and protest their detention. “We are suffering in here,” they said. A mass hunger strike by detainees occurred in June 2014 to protest a new ministerial order allowing indefinite detention, unofficially supported by harsh European Union directives. The facility was hit with riots in 2013. A statement released by the migrants read in part: “With the systematic and open-ended detention, the Greek government is massacring us. They are wasting our lives and killing our dreams and hopes inside the prisons. All of that while none of us has committed a crime.”
Chaman translated for me. None of the men wanted to return to Afghanistan because they feared persecution or worse. They all hated Greece for the way it treated refugees. They wished to get to Germany, or other European nations with better conditions. One man showed me a bullet lodged in his foot since he had been shot by guards while trying to escape. He had asked for surgery to remove it but was refused. All the men stated that the police regularly beat them, and that conditions inside were awful. The European Court of Human Rights had condemned conditions inside Greek detention centers eleven times, as had many Greek courts when considering excessive periods of detention. The UN opposed extended periods of administrative detention as “standard practice aimed at discouraging irregular entry or stay in the country.”
After one minute, the guards wanted us to leave. We refused and said we needed more time. I passed the tea and sugar to the detainees, and after ten minutes we were directed to leave. The fence was firmly shut. The smell of sweat hung in the air from men cooped up in the searing heat. Chaman told me that he felt obliged to help his fellow Afghans and visit them in detention, taking them to lawyers and doctors in Athens when they were released. “It’s part of my mission,” he said.
Excerpted from “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe” by Antony Loewenstein, published by Verso Books.