September 22, 2014
I had never been in a detention centre for irregularly residing migrants before trespassing, a few days ago, into Amygdaleza. Amygdaleza is in the outskirts of Athens, a few kilometres north of what is widely referred to as the cradle of democracy. Along with the members of FEANTSA migration working group, I have access to Amygdaleza thanks to a social worker hired by the Greek police and paid by the EU in order to assist around 40 unaccompanied minors, between 10 and 17 years old, who are detained in a part of the centre.
We first visit the service where unaccompanied minors are kept. After a short presentation made by a psychologist, who is also policeman and the responsible for the service, they open us the gate and let us in where the young people live. In the dark corridor we are surrounded by teenagers and we glimpse at the rooms where the young guys sleep in small beds one next to the other. They show us a room where they dispose of two computers and from a TV screen a journalist from the BBC is talking about the Scottish referendum on independence.
We talk to the young guys who look disappointed when they realise we are not there to take them away nor will we actually be of any immediate help. Some tell us they have been there for three months, some say six, other eight, other even more. They are supposed to stay in detention for a maximum of six months and then moved to tailored services. Actually, what is most painful does not seem to be the length of their detention but rather the lack of information regarding what will happen to them. They come from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh. A guy from Guinea has been living in detention centres for about two years – he first was in Mytilene and then was moved to Amygdaleza. With his parents dead, a brother in Belgium and a sister in Germany with whom he lost contact, he wishes – to my surprise – to stay in Greece. He seems a smiley guy and now is happy he can speak French with me. He does not feel very comfortable with his English and is now asking the social worker, struggling with the few words he knows in Greek, a specific product for his dreadlocks. A young Bangladeshi was with him in Mytilene and had a similar path to Amygdaleza but, unlike the Guinean, he looks depressed and hopeless. He is afraid to be sent back to Bangladesh and he is frightened not to know for how long he will have to be detained here.
They show us where they play football. It is a 35-40 square metres pitch with bars all around its perimeter and with a concrete roof that does not allow any view of the sky. On the pitch a ping pong table – they guys tell us – was brought by two policemen right the day before our visit, probably to make the place look more entertaining. Therefore, today there is no chance to see the skills of a Syrian guy who is introduced to us as the strongest player among the young inmates. I told him he looks like Ibrahimovic. He seems flattered and amused by the comparison and laughingly points out that Ibrahimovic was born to refugees escaping from war-ravaged Bosnia.
Most of them asked for asylum but still have not received any update about their requests. They want us to know their stories and they are aware that what has been happening to them is unfair and infringes the law. They know more than I expected, they are 15 – 16 years old but their eyes are older. One loves to draw, another makes handcraft, they want to learn Greek and some wish to play football for Olympiakos. But all their energies and hopes are wasted in an endless detention with no access to education nor to vocational training, to sport or any other kind of activity. A few of them will be moved to a shelter but most of them will just stay there until they are sent back to the country they wish to flee. Today the guard is a policeman who constantly makes jokes; he is loved by the guys who tell me that not all are that kind. Other policemen are insensible, even cruel. I hear stories about guys mistreated, beaten up in a few cases.
Later on, we move to one of the camps for adults. Overall, 4 000 irregularly residing immigrants are detained. A few days earlier a riot had to be placated. I am told the riot burst because a few policemen wanted a few inmates to stop praying and when they refused they were beaten up. We are not visiting the camp where this recently happened though we enter into another where a riot occurred one year ago. We can still spot a few containers that were burnt and are still not fixed since that happened. While we trespass into the camp, a notice reminds me that what I am about to see was funded for 75% by the European Union, through the European Return Fund. How can a place where EU legislation is so clearly infringed be funded by the EU is a mystery to me.
As soon as we are in, tens of people approach the grids that separate us from them. They all come out from containers, each of which hosts eight of them. Under the eyes of policemen, we get close to the grids and start listening to their stories. Those who can speak English voluntarily translate for their mates. Contrary to what the policemen told us about the decent conditions in which the inmates live, they say the water at their disposal is smelly, they tell us that when they have health problems only one out of five is actually examined. Some have been there for much longer than 18 months, an Afghani on his twenties tell me he has been there for almost three years, another points out that in 12 months he has been detained in this camp he has never been interviewed.
I feel useless – I should be here to answer questions rather than ask them. I was told that in Greece there are worse camps than this one. I was told that in other detention sites, people are squashed in small jail cells so much that they have to stand and struggle to get the chance to at least lean against the wall for some comfort. The fact is that it does not need to be worse than this to hurt. I was somehow prepared to witness these living conditions but that awareness does not prevent me from feeling guilty. Because Primo Levi is whispering in my ear that I, who live safe in my warm house and who find, returning in the evening, hot food and friendly faces, I must consider if this is a man.