Connect to share and comment

Greece plans to lock up illegal migrants

A new Greek law increases the amount of time illegal immigrants can be detained.

Illegal immigrants cover themselves with blankets as they sit on a beach on the island of Crete, Dec. 6, 2007. (Giorgos Papanikolaou/Reuters)

ATHENS — On the morning of June 12, Greek authorities flattened and cleared a squatter camp in the Greek port city of Patras that was home to hundreds of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan. Bulldozers crushed the makeshift houses, setting off a fire, while riot police arrested the few dozen inhabitants who hadn’t yet run away.

The demolition of the camp, where many Afghanis lived while trying to board boats to Italy, is evidence of a new crackdown on illegal immigration by Greece’s center-right government that has human rights groups worried.

The government says it is overwhelmed by illegal immigration and plans to build new detention centers to lock up undocumented migrants.

New legislation rushed through parliament at the end of June increases the length of time illegal migrants can be held to six months from three. Under certain circumstances, this can be extended for an additional 12 months.

The Greek government also says it plans to create new detention centers in unused military bases to house the migrants. According to Greek press reports, the first of these could be ready by the end of July and will likely be located away from residential areas.

But human rights groups and opposition parties say incarceration is the wrong way to deal with the immigration crisis. Greece’s existing detention facilities have been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and European courts for failing to ensure basic human rights. Critics also say the new regulations make it more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers to access the rights they are entitled to.

“It’s not a solution to have more and more detention centers. It’s not a solution to the migration or refugee problems,” said Georgia Trismpioti, director of the Greek branch of Amnesty International. “They did not commit any crime. Their only ‘crime,’ so to say, is just to enter another country to find political asylum or to find a better condition of life.”

A recent report by the Council of Europe, based on 2008 visits to a number of detention sites, found that despite some progress, conditions in Greek facilities remained unacceptable and that migrants ran a “considerable risk of being ill-treated.”

Other human rights groups have found similar problems with existing centers.

“The detention centers in the islands of the Aegean Sea, in Samos for instance, in Evros, which is close to Turkey, where a lot of asylum seekers are detained — the conditions are deplorable,” Trismpioti said.

But the country’s governing party feels under pressure to show it is taking action. The party is still smarting from a recent defeat in the European Union Parliamentary election, during which a far-right party made substantial gains by emphasizing immigration issues.