Monday, August 31, 2009

Protesters turn pirates in immigration centre demo

In a move, reminiscent of pirate movies from the past, demonstrators from Greece, Germany, Italy and France in a flotilla of small boats blockaded a port on the Greek island of Lesvos (Mytilini). Around 40 rubber dinghies were used to prevent ferries from entering the port in protest against conditions in the Pagani immigration detention centre on the island. According to human rights activists refugees, some as young as two years hold have been held in an overcrowded ex - warehouse in appalling conditions.

Greek blogger Afroditi Al Salech describes the appalling conditions in the centre, originally designed to hold 250, but now home to 900 inmates, 300 of them children who are often locked up for days on end as there is not enough room in the yard for people to exercise for more than a few minutes every day.

Inside refugees, 150 women and 50 babies are often forced to sleep on the floor due to lack of space for beds and hundreds have to share the facilities' handful of leaking bathrooms throughout summer when temperatures often top 40c.

The majority of those held are refugees fleeing poverty and war in Afghanistan and Somalia who were smuggled onto the island from the nearby Turkish coast. According to official figures 100 people arrive per week on the island often dumped at sea by people smugglers anxious to avoid detection by the Greek navy and coast guard.

After being processed by the authorities those arriving on Greek territory are kept for months on end in such detention centres and then either illegally deported to Turkey or sent on their way to Athens where if they are lucky they can move to another European Union country or work on the black market.

However, many find themselves stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare which keeps them in Greece. According to the Dublin II Accord refugees are obliged to apply for asylum in the first country they reach. However, Greece has been accused by the UNHCR, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations of systematically refusing to grant such requests. Last year just 0.04% of those seeking asylum were granted it.

Without papers immigrants in Greece cannot travel legally to other countries nor get work or health insurance. As a result ports such as Patra and Igoumnitsa on the west coast of Greece have attracted thousands desperate to smuggle themselves out of the country.

Despite repeated criticism by the UNHCR of conditions at the Pagani detention centre (see here for last week's critical report) Athens has so far done little to alleviate overcrowding or implement measures for the protection of underage refugees who often disappear into the system and are never heard from again.

Questions still remain about the fate of 12 under age refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq who disappeared from a shelter in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city in early August. According to reports in the Greek press the 12 were part of a group of 13 minors taken by ferry from a detention centre on the island of Mytiline on Tuesday to stay in shelters run by NGOs in the northern port town.

However, staff at the Arsis shelter for young people stated that 12 of the 13 had signed papers giving themselves permission to leave. The case came to light when Greek member of parliament, Giannis Zogias visited the shelter only to be told that most of the refugees had gone.

As the country gears up for national elections in the near future, the ruling conservative New Democracy government has sought to take a tough line on immigration in order to win back ground from the far right LAOS party who made substantial gains in the recent European parliamentary elections. In doing so prime minister Kostas Karamanlis hopes to shore up support from the right wing of the party and claw back votes.

In reply to the UN's recent condemnation of the Greece's handling of racism, leading LAOS party official, Adonis Georgiadis, MP for 2nd district of Athens said that he would seek the aid of wealthy Greek tycoons to round up all the refugees in the country and dump them in Sweden and New York if he were prime minister

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Photographs by Afroditi Al Salech

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