Corinth, Greece - Azher Abbas’ capture reads like a grim version of a classic fairy tale. "There was a knock at the door, and a voice outside said, ‘I am a boss, I have work; come out and work.’"
It was the pre-dawn hour, when farmers in provincial towns in southern Greece drive around recruiting day labourers like Abbas. He opened the door of the flat he shared with two other undocumented Pakistani migrants.
"Policemen burst in and started turning the place upside-down. They asked us for our papers. They took us away."
Abbas had spent 15 months as a farm hand, picking oranges and olives or tilling land, from dawn til dusk, for up to 25 euros ($34) a day. Once a month, he sent about 150 euros ($204) home to support his parents and three siblings.
They beat us so badly, a lot of people simply went out of their minds with fear.
It was paradise compared to what followed: 15 months at Corinth detention centre - one of Greece's largest immigrant detention centres, around an hour drive south of Athens. An estimated 6,000 are held in such camps, and thousands more at police stations.
"We were never treated as people," said Abbas. One day, he and other inmates complained about the chickpea stew. "A bunch of policemen came and spat in the food and held batons over us and said ‘eat it now'."
When a man in Abbas’ dormitory of 80 people caught scabies, a highly infectious skin disease, the men demanded he go to hospital. The response was swift. "They beat us so badly, that a lot of people simply went out of their minds with fear," he said. "No one complained again, because we realised that if any of us got sick or died we just couldn’t tell anyone. We had no rights."
Grave illness became Abbas’ ticket out as appalling hygiene conditions contributed to his contracting Hepatitis C. The Greek chapter of Doctors of the World, an international non-profit organisation, diagnosed him and asked for his release. "You aren’t ready to die yet," a policeman told him. "You still have some months to go. When you’re close to death we’ll let you out. You won’t die in here."
No journalists allowed
Abbas was released in April. The Orthodox Church’s Athens diocese, which runs a charity clinic for the uninsured, provided him with the expensive medicine he needs to combat the disease; but his recovery is shaky.
Journalists are not allowed inside detention centres, but Doctors Without Borders photographed raw sewage seeping through the floors of the Komotini centre in northern Greece. Inmates are confined indoors 22 hours a day, the aid group told Al Jazeera, reporting that some have tried to kill themselves.
Such conditions were at least limited to periods of up to 18 months. But now, Greece may be violating European law by extending detention indefinitely, relabeling it as a "restraint". Based on an opinion from the State Legal Council, an advisory body, the policy has already kept at least 300 people behind bars for longer than 18 months.
A Greek court struck this decision down last month, ruling that such measures were "effectively tantamount" to the extension of detentions, a practice that "does not have any basis in law".
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a grouping of 82 NGOs, agrees. The EU’s Returns Directive, which Greece has signed, states that "no case authorises the maximum period defined in that provision to be exceeded".
|Greek detention centres under scrutiny
Greek police told Al Jazeera that detention beyond 18 months isn’t implemented in all cases. "If an immigrant refuses to co-operate with his deportation order, is a flight risk, isn’t recognised by his country’s consulate, and has no legal residence or the means to support himself, the competent authorities may … compel him to remain in his detention facility until he agrees to co-operate with his deportation order."
But the European Directive's ruling applies even where ‘‘the person concerned... is not in possession of valid documents, his conduct is aggressive, and he has no means of supporting himself and no accommodation or means supplied by the member state for that purpose."
Police say they have deported 65,573 irregular migrants in 2011-13, and estimate that the number will exceed 100,000 by the end of this year. But not everyone agrees that they’re doing a good job.
"The fact that Greek authorities weren’t able to [effect deportations] within the already generous 18-month period is a failure of this policy of pre-deportation detention," said Alexandros Konstantinou, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, a non-governmental organisation offering migrants legal aid.
"Even nationalities who may not be deported because of the situation in their country, such as Somalis, Eritreans and Syrians, continue to be kept in detention," he added. "This is a strong indication that detention is not being used to facilitate deportation but has other aims, such as the discouragement of further migration."
Last year, under sustained pressure from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Greece established a dedicated Asylum Service. In its first year it processed 8,945 applications and approved 1,206 - about the same number as in the previous seven years combined. Almost all those asylum approvals went to Palestinians, Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese, and Somalis, whose societies are in political turmoil.
To ensure that new arrivals could contact asylum authorities, Greece also established a string of First Reception Centres along the border, where migrants receive medical checkups and legal advice.
We are dealing with a problem that is not Greek, it is a European problem and that is why we are constantly asking for the support and solidarity of other EU countries.
But while the Greek processing system might be developing, attention is still focused on the European policy vacuum. "We are dealing with a problem that is not Greek, it is a European problem," said Panayotis Nikas, the First Reception Centres director. "That is why we are constantly asking for the support of other EU countries."
Some of that support is necessarily financial. The First Reception service’s current budget is $6.6m for 2014, but it has applied for a further $30.8m in European funds, without which it says it cannot maintain facilities or build new ones.
Greece’s maritime border with Turkey is the gateway for nine-tenths of irregular migration into Europe - and policing it cost $86m last year, of which the EU contributed just $3.9m.
What worries the Hellenic Coastguard is that the number of incoming migrants has doubled this year to about 1500 a month.
There are hidden costs, too. A research paper for the Database on Irregular Migration estimated the number of irregular migrants living in Greece at 3.5 percent of the population by the end of 2011. The equivalent figure for the EU was just 0.7 percent.
Even if the EU contributes more, money alone will not solve the problem, said Efi Latsoudi, a member of a volunteer group which helps to clothe and feed migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos. "It’s not only the [migrant] traffickers who are criminals, it’s also this European policy which is criminal," she says. "When you know that people in need are escaping their country and they are forced to get into these boats to try and save their life and the lives of their children and you let them, then we are also criminals."
"We have gone beyond the point of talking about just financial support," Nikas says. "We need to talk about issues such as relocation and a more comprehensive response from the European Union."
The European Union’s asylum rules, referred to as Dublin II, only allow people to apply in the country of arrival - which burdens Greece disproportionately. "Ιt is obvious that we need to rethink Dublin ΙΙ with our European partners," says Greece’s new citizens’ protection minister, Vasilis Kikilias.
The European Economic and Social Committee, an advisory body to the European Commission, agrees. "We have proposed places in safe third countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, where these asylum seekers could ask for the political status of refugees in Europe," says Henri Malosse, its president. "We could open a legal way for them to come to Europe, rather than for them to be in the hands of a mafia and to die in the sea."
But the timing is off. Anti-immigration parties won their largest-ever bloc of seats in European Parliament elections last May. "It is a real scandal that we had to wait so long for one vision on immigration," says Malosse. Europe may end up waiting longer, while more migrants suffer on the high seas.