‘Racist and illegal’ fast-track deportations target North African and Asian refugees in Greece
Individuals from North Africa and South Asia are being singled out upon arrival, due to a policy that has been described as racist and illegal.
Ariel Ricker, a refugee rights lawyer working on Lesvos with Advocates Abroad, said the fast-track programme formally known as the "Pilot Project" is a "racist policy" which is "exclusionary and illegal. Period."
Migrants are reportedly denied access to lawyers or doctors at the notorious Section B detention centre on Lesvos, having experienced an "extremely truncated asylum procedure with fewer guarantees".
'National List of Undesirable Aliens'
Last week, a Moroccan refugee named Efraim sent The New Arab photos of an Algerian man attempting suicide inside Section B, standing on the roof of his cell and threatening to jump.
"He wants to understand why he is in prison," explained Efraim, who underwent the fast-track procedure himself.
"No right to a doctor, no right to a lawyer… it's hell."
This was not the first suicide attempt - one young inmate stabbed himself in the chest with a switchblade this summer. He was not released.
Asylum policies discriminating over nationality date back years, but the current Pilot Project is linked to a Greek Police circular from June 2016, seen by The New Arab.
It states: "Arrested aliens with [a] low percentage of recognition (economic profile) (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, etc)" will be met with "registration in the National List of Undesirable Aliens".
Reports of torture and enforced disappearances routinely emanate from these countries, yet the police circular instructs officers to dismiss these claims, adding that asylum claims should be treated as "undesirable".
People on the "National List of Undesirable Aliens" can be deported, according to the circular, for "delinquent behaviour" including "threats" and "insults". As such, the police have the power to arbitrarily imprison and deport any individual on the list they feel is "insulting" them, without their asylum case being granted a proper hearing.
This reporter recently stood in the street in Lesvos with an Algerian man with the legal right to remain, and another Iranian man whose papers had expired. The two men were subjected to a police check before the Algerian was dragged to the police station for a spot-check. But officers did not bother to look at the Iranian's papers - such is the arbitrary nature of police checks on Lesvos.
"The possibility [of discrimination] has always been there," said Ricker, who added that the programme had "blossomed… from a secret project to one that's more visible.
"It is not a 'pilot' project when it's implemented on a national level by a state authority."
In recent months, arrivals from "undesirable nations" have been placed straight behind bars in Section B, often still dripping wet, traumatised or physically injured from their life-threatening crossing of the Aegean Sea.
People inside Section B are denied access to their mobile phones for all but an hour a day. These phones and possessions are later stripped from them once they are deported to Turkey.
The experience makes it extremely difficult for observers to know how people are being processed, or for lawyers and activists to make any meaningful contact with new arrivals at all.
"The conditions in the closed Section B of Moria Centre [are] particularly poor and could be considered as inhuman and degrading," one Council of Europe researcher reported.
Inmates are not all given blankets and can live among flooded sewage. Some can only be seen by a doctor at the discretion of the prison guards.
Those subject to the standard fast-track procedure get just one day to prepare with a state-appointed lawyer, an (almost inevitably negative) decision within 24 hours of their interview, five days to prepare and file an appeal, and another couple of days before they are finally rejected. Deportation soon follows.
|Insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimise the guarantees of the asylum process... to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible|
Discussing the Pilot Project, the director of Greece's asylum service said: "Insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimise the guarantees of the asylum process... to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible."
Efraim arrived on a boat crowded with 45 Moroccans, Algerians, Syrians and Iraqis. And while the Syrian and Iraqi families were allowed to go into the refugee camp, move around the island and prepare for their case with legal organisations, the North Africans were put straight into detention.
Of that original number, 43 were swiftly deported back to Turkey - only Efraim and one other man were eventually granted special dispensation to leave the jail as LGBTQ asylum seekers.
To be clear, Efraim hasn't been granted asylum - only the chance to fight his case properly, with proper legal help.
"[When in Section B] I couldn't sleep, I suffered severe depression, I suffered pain for more than a month with an infection in my mouth," he said. "When I went to see the doctor he said 'why didn't you come before?' I told him: 'I was in jail.'"
So why is the Pilot Project, based on laws passed following the EU-Turkey deal, only "blossoming" into full view now?
Recent months have seen a sharp increase in the number of refugees crossing to the Greek islands from Turkey. More than 5,000 refugees arrived in September, a significant increase on September 2016, with daily boat crossings in October as well.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently claimed that Turkey had no need of EU membership, and it is rumoured on the islands that the Turkish state is no longer bothering to fulfil its end of the EU-Turkey deal by halting migration flows into Europe.
The army prison-turned-refugee camp at Moria has a capacity of only around 2,000, yet currently hosts more than 5,000 asylum-seekers, with many sleeping in flimsy tents or even outside, between shelters.
Two residents have died from untreated health complications in recent weeks, including a five-year-old girl. More than 8,000 refugees are similarly exposed on the other Greek hotspot islands - Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros.
"Living in Moria makes us all sick," said long-term Moria resident Hossein.
|No right to a doctor, no right to a lawyer… it's hell|
"I hate that I cannot wash myself properly. In winter it is freezing. Everything is soaked. When you wake up you cannot move your limbs.
"Last winter we burned paper and plastic to stay warm - you're covered in ashes. It's as if we were not human beings."
At least six people died in the camp last winter, and thirteen across the islands as a whole.
The ramping-up of the Pilot Project seems to be one way the EU is attempting to clear the islands before facing another humanitarian (and PR) disaster this winter. The Greek authorities are also trying to relocate more vulnerable and minor refugees from the islands to the mainland, and across Europe.
Spokespersons for the camp and Hellenic Police were contacted but failed to respond by time of publication.
One knock-on effect of the rush to process and deport "undesirable" arrivals is that those from countries with higher acceptance rates (such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Eritrea) are left waiting for 12 months or more to get a decision on their cases. This has contributed to protests, rioting and infighting between different nationalities in the camp, further endangering people's lives.
Following demonstrations in Moria on 18 July, squads of riot police invaded the camp, hurling stones, firing tear-gas and beating refugees. Victims were spat and stamped upon, subjected to racist abuse, and beaten inside the police station. Pregnant women were also manhandled.
One victim lost consciousness for four hours, waking in hospital in critical condition. Others spent six days in jail without access to a doctor, arriving to court splattered in blood and with open, uncleaned wounds.
'Open the islands'
A group of hundreds of asylum-seekers driven out of the camp by violence this past weekend occupied the city centre of Lesvos for the second time in months. Similar to a coalition of more than 100 refugee solidarity groups in Greece which recently launched a campaign to winterproof the islands to prevent further deaths, they demand freedom of movement.
The 'Open the Islands' campaign said in a statement: "The current situation is not caused by the onset of winter or a sudden increase of arrivals.
"Rather, it is a direct result of the EU-Turkey Statement and EU asylum and migration policies of exclusion.
"We call on the Greek government, at local and national levels, to close the hotspots and decongest the islands by ending restrictions on the freedom of movement of asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands and provide them with adequate reception on the mainland outside of detention facilities."
This would ease the heavy burden on the battered Greek islands - and Greek islanders - without condemning asylum-seekers to arbitrary deportation and detention on the flimsy, "racist" grounds of their nationality.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist who has written for the Independent, VICE and Motherboard.