More than a year before the big refugee influx into Europe began in 2015, I came across a book titled In School I Forget Prison (2013). It is based on the accounts of male adolescents held in a juvenile prison in the Greek city of Volos. In it, underage immigrants describe their dangerous journeys from Asia – mostly Pakistan – to Europe.
Reading this, I was struck by the question: How is it possible that teenage boys, who have left their families and their homes in order to escape violence and conflict, end up in Greek prisons, some receiving 25-year sentences?
I soon discovered that juvenile prisons in Greece were packed with young refugees who had been accused of smuggling people across the border.
As the refugee crisis reached its peak in the summer of 2015 and thousands of desperate people landed on Greek shores, even more minors were arrested by border police.
In its attempt to deter smuggling, Greece imposed strict laws and severe punishments, irrespective of age.
Soon, juvenile prisons became crowded with young refugees, who were desperately trying to convince the authorities that they had been forced, threatened or misled by smugglers into transporting people across the border.
The courts generally refused to believe them. Many young boys received life sentences as, according to Greek law, a smuggler gets 10 years for each person transported. Many smugglers, aware of the harsh laws, avoided making the crossing themselves, instead forcing teenage boys to steer the boat.
After about six months of wrangling with the authorities, in April 2014 I received permission to shoot inside the Volos juvenile prison, a jail exclusively for non-Greek prisoners.
I decided to focus on Jasim, a 17-year-old Yazidi from northern Iraq, and Alsaleh, an 18-year-old Kurd from Kobani in Syria.
Jasim was threatened by a smuggler who told him that if he didn’t steer the boat with refugees across the Evros river, he would drown his cousin and young nephew.
One of the first things that struck me in the prison were the telephone conversations between the boys and their families: parents living in war zones under the constant threat of bombings and raids by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) talking to their teenage sons who had been sent to Europe in search of safety but had wound up in jail.
The sons would listen as their parents told them of yet another friend who had been beheaded by ISIL, of the desperate shortage of food and medicine or of how seriously ill Alsaleh’s mother had become.
The teenagers would try to console them, lying about the length of their stay in prison and reassuring them that they would soon get a job and take care of them.
But the truth was that the boys were vulnerable, frightened and confused. Detained in a foreign land where they didn’t speak the language and with no legal representation, they knew that they might have to lie to their mothers for many years to come. They had no advisers, no support, no money and no one to visit them in prison. They were alone.
After six months in prison, the court released Jasim on parole. Prohibited from leaving Greece, he had to survive in Athens without money, shelter or any support from the state. His options were to leave Greece illegally under the threat of being arrested again or to stay and try to find an illegal job at a time of economic crisis, join a criminal gang, beg or become a victim of human trafficking. He was effectively still a prisoner.
By 2016, the authorities were becoming aware of the complexities surrounding smuggling in Greece and that innocent minors were frequently being victimised.
As a result, the border police as well as the judiciary have become more cautious, sensitive and lenient in cases involving young refugees. Minors are no longer arrested at the borders as regularly. Crucially, those who are arrested and accused of people smuggling are no longer put in jail but are sent to detention centres where they are required to stay and participate in activities but can come and go. Even so, many things remain unresolved.
Jasim and Alsaleh’s stories opened a window into what it means to be an unaccompanied minor at the mercy of a foreign justice system and raised important questions regarding the effectiveness of the Greek penal system in protecting minors.
My film, The Longest Run, filmed in the confined environment of a juvenile prison, against the backdrop of ISIL attacks in the Middle East, is about the outer and inner borders which create further hostility and pain. It is also an ode to freedom and the universality of family bonds and love.