by Augustine Zenakos originally posted at Analyzegreece.gr
Last June, during the Greek government cabinet reshuffle that followed the May 2014 EU elections, a strange incident took place. In the Ministry of Public Order and Protection of the Citizen, former Minister Mr Nikos Dendias was replaced by new Minister Mr Vassilis Kikilias. During the ceremony, Police officials saw fit to make a present to their outgoing Minister. They chose to give Mr Dendias an asylum seeker’s application, all customized with his own name and personal information. The Minister found it funny and touching. He and the officers laughed, and he posed for the obligatory photograph.
A bit over a month later, on July 6th, Amro was walking in downtown Athens. He came across police conducting a so-called “sweep” operation. They asked for his papers. He didn’t have them. They detained him and carted him off to a detention centre. Amro was born in Greece, but according to Greek law this doesn’t mean he is entitled to either nationality or citizenship. He must keep a current residence permit – a permit that allows him to remain in the country he was born in. The reason he didn’t have it on him that day was because he had left it with a lawyer for renewal. All this was explained, yet the Police said that in order to release him they now required a passport. He doesn’t have one, he couldn’t have one; he is not a Greek citizen. The Police suggested he should get one from “his own” embassy. They meant the Egyptian Embassy. Egypt would indeed give him a passport, but he should first pay some money in lieu of army service that he has not completed. He has not completed it because he was born in Greece. And so Amro’s story goes, a story of incredulity and brutality, identical to that of so many others in Greece today.
Between these two incidents, a shocking reality becomes apparent: Greek officials and authorities do not just have contempt for human rights. They also find the fact that they do rather amusing.
According to Amnesty International, Greece has a dismal record in granting asylum, despite the fact that a great number of the people that seek refuge here come from parts of the world that have been torn apart by war. It has to be said that most of these people mean to travel to other EU countries, and are prevented to do so – which should make the EU complicit with the tragedy that takes place here. Still, there is no mistaking the Greek government’s cruelty in dealing with both asylum seekers and immigrants. In fact, the Greek Authorities hardly distinguish between asylum seeking and immigration – be it “illegal” or otherwise. Years of indifference for anything resembling a rational immigration policy have given way, during the crisis, to police operations –informally called “sweeps”– that just round up foreign-looking people off the street, often violently, and bundle them up to police stations and detention centers. The naming of one of these operations “Zeus Xenios”, after the ancient Greek god of hospitality, only serves to reinforce the impression that the Greek authorities seem to find human rights violations a source of amusement.
Though called detention centers, these are in effect concentration camps – complete with razor wire encirclements and towers manned by armed police guards. Inside the wire, there are rows upon rows of shipping containers, where seven or eight people at a time are crammed in. They are only let out for one or two hours a day. There is hardly any air conditioning in the containers, and the summer is hot. They cannot wash their clothes. Scabies is rampant. If they protest, they are beaten.
Concentration camps for immigrants are true spaces of exception, where the rule of law is suspended. The people held there are not accused of a crime nor have been convicted of one. In many cases it has not even been ascertained whether they have entered the country illegally or not, or what their immigration or asylum status is; and in any case their incarceration is not subject to a process of law. They are “swept off” the street and detained simply through the force of the police.
Conditions in the country’s police stations, some of which also serve as makeshift detention centers for immigrants, are similarly horrifying – particularly in Athens. Although detention in police stations is meant to be a temporary measure, it often lasts many months, despite the fact that they lack any provision for the detainees to ever go outside. People detained in police stations, sometimes as many as eighty in one holding cell, literally never see sunlight. Again, beatings are a matter of course.
Concentration camps for immigrants, drug users and homeless people were first talked about in pre-Olympic Greece, in 2004, with the purpose of “improving” the image of the streets of Athens. The first concentration camp was to be constructed in the old NATO army base, in Aspropyrgos, near Athens. The plan never materialised due to the reaction by NGOs and left-wing parties and organisations. It was discussed again when Christos Markogiannakis of New Democracy took over the Ministry of Public Order, in 2009, but once more was not put into practice. The individual who finally gave life to the idea that a modern democracy should imprison immigrants without due process in containers fenced off with barbed wire was Minister of Public Order Michalis Chrysochoidis of PASOK. He did it in the run-up to Greece’s 2012 national elections. Those elections –this may sound familiar– were to decide, according to most European media, whether Greece would remain in the bosom of its European family by electing the New Democracy party, or embrace the dreaded left-wing SYRIZA. New Democracy won, and its Minister Nikos Dendias put the concentration camps to intensive use, unflinchingly maintaining on TV that “this is the European way”.
These policies appear against a background of a torrent of complaints for abuse and torture by the Greek police, not only against immigrants, but also against arrested demonstrators and other detainees, as well as members of the Press, as reported by Amnesty International, which also documents 12 cases where the European Court of Human Rights has convicted Greece for police crimes.
When, in an interview for UNFOLLOW magazine, a colleague and I questioned Mr Dendias, still the Public Order Minister at the time, on the Greek Police’s excessive violence record, he was totally dismissive. When we insisted and sited the 12 convictions by the ECHR, he expressed doubts as to the court’s legal expertise.
There are, unfortunately, many more examples of the disregard for human rights and the rule of law, not just relating to the issue of immigration, that has become a staple of Greek governance, increasingly in recent years. Even this modest account that I have given here, should be enough to make the point that the governments of New Democracy and PASOK, with a helping hand by DIMAR (the dwindling Democratic Left party), have cost Greece much more than the prosperity of its lower and middle classes.
Since 2010, during the Greek bailout program, Greece has repeatedly been threatened, implicitly and on occasion explicitly, by European governments, EU officials, and part of the European Press, with expulsion from the Eurozone, if it does not get its financial affairs in order. Why, one wonders, in this Europe of humanist values, has there not been at least a comparable uproar regarding Greece’s lamentable human rights record? Does this fact not imply that it is more vital for the EU to impose its financial directives, rather than ensure that its member-states do not abuse people?
Europe needs to change, indeed. But its deluded orthodoxy in financial matters is only part of what is broken and needs fixing. As is evident in the case of Greece, the crisis is inseparable from an erosion of democratic liberties and a disregard for human rights that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
This is also at stake in this election.
Augustine Zenakos is chief editor of UNFOLLOW, a news and politics monthly.