Unleashing a wave

Two weeks ago the Greek Defence Minister, Panos Kammenos, threatened to unleash a “wave of millions of economic migrants” and “jihadists of the Islamic State” on Europe if it failed to respond to Greece’s demands for continued bailout payments. The Telegraph reported, “EU officials have been so concerned by the Greek threats that the European Commission last week sought “assurances… that no measures to open up detention centres are being taken”.

While the Greek government has rushed to distance itself from Kammenos’ claims and to clarify that it has no policy of releasing migrants from the detention centres, one can’t help but feeling that both Greece and the concerned EU officials have missed the point. This small fracas over the Greek bailout reveals what is already beyond dispute – behind the EU’s policies on migration lies a deep-seated disdain for those being held in appalling conditions in Greece’s detention centres.

In a wave of highly publicised cases (culminating in a Grand Chamber decision in 2011), the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the conditions of detention in Greece’s immigrant centres violated the anti-torture provision in Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In the Case of M.S.S v Belgium and Greece, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR found that Greece engaged in a systematic practice of detaining asylum-seekers in holding facilities defined by “overcrowding, dirt, lack of space, lack of ventilation, little or no possibility of taking a walk, no place to relax, insufficient mattresses, dirty mattresses, no free access to toilets, inadequate sanitary facilities, no privacy, limited access to care.” The Court laboriously describes reports of human rights organisations that detail the horrors of the detention centres – the refusal of guards to allow immigrants to leave cells to use the toilet or to drink fresh water, extraordinary conditions of over-crowding that made it impossible for people to lie down to sleep at night, and the verbal and physical violence migrants suffered at the hands of immigration officials.  The Court found cases of people being refused access to medication and medical attention. In the Case of M.S.S, the Grand Chamber found that “the feeling of arbitrariness and the feeling of inferiority and anxiety often associated with it, as well as the profound effect such conditions of detention indubitably have on a person’s dignity, constitute degrading treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention. In addition, the applicant’s distress was accentuated by the vulnerability inherent in his situation as an asylum-seeker.”

Despite the findings of the ECHR, the conditions of migrants in Greek detention remain deplorable.  In November 2014 Mohamed Asfak died in a Greek detention centre at Amygdaleza. Reports claimed that Asfak was denied medical assistance for a number of months. His death prompted a protest in which detainees described the detention centres as concentration camps. The condition of the detention facilities led Greece’s own Deputy Interior Minister Panousis to declare his shame “as a human being” at the appalling conditions.

That these conditions remain, despite the decisions of the ECHR, is a terrible indictment of Greece and all the parties to the Dublin Regulation. These are centres that hold asylum-seekers and economic refugees – people who are not, in other words, being held in terms of any court decision in criminal proceedings.

These detained asylum-seekers (and the deprivation of their fundamental human right to freedom in conditions that amount to torture) have now become bartering chips in European economic debate. Kammenos’ comment ignores and diminishes the humanity of these detainees in two ways. He firstly treats them as a mere means with which to attain continued bailout payments. Kammenos secondly speaks of asylum seekers as though they are a disease, to be released on Europe. Instead of a group of vulnerable asylum-seekers and economic migrants fleeing war and poverty, Kammenos paints them as an economic and violent threat – among their numbers, he warns, lurk terrorists. In both of these ways, Kammenos’ statement demeans the dignity of the detainees – that which the ECHR sought to protect in its finding that the detention centres violated Article 3 of the Convention.

Kammenos recasts Greece’s inhumane detention centres as a favour bestowed on its European neighbours. This is both morally repulsive and legally inaccurate. But perhaps even more distressing was the failure of an appropriate EU response. Rather than anxiously seeking to ensure that Greece would not free detained migrants, EU officials should have loudly demanded that Greece meet its international obligations and either immediately improve the conditions of those detained or shut down detention centres that amount to European torture centres.

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