Greece: detention of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers on health grounds
Everywhere is the same. When elections approach, the moderate party tries to gain some votes by echoing some of the slogans of the extremist parties on some of the most sensitive issues, e.g. immigration.
In France, Sarkosy is ramping up his rhetoric against irregular immigrants and threatening the EU to pull France out of Schengen, while in Greece, where elections are also foreseen for next weekend, Andreas Loverdos, Minister of Health recently described the situation of migrants in central Athens as a ”ticking time bomb for public health”. “Judging by the content of the debate in Greece over the past few days, one might think that the most pressing issue facing the country ahead of the upcoming general elections is illegal immigration rather than the economy.”, wrote Ekathimerini.
If the rhetoric is comparable, the realities on the ground are not. Greece has a much bigger ‘problem of immigration’ than France with an asylum system in disarray and an estimated 400,000 undocumented migrants, according to the ELIAMEP think tank, for a population of only eleven million.
This does not justify the recent outrageous measures taken by the Greek government, but it makes it more difficult to understand if these are to be seen as mere rhetoric in view of the elections or also as helpless attempts to fix a situation that seems out of control.
According to the amendment of the Greek Presidential Decree 114/2010, passed by the parliament on 9 April, mandatory health screenings and detention are foreseen for “persons who suffer from contagious diseases or belong to groups vulnerable to contagious diseases, mainly due to their country of origin or the use of intravenous illegal substances, or the fact that s/he is a sex worker…, or due to his/her living conditions that do not abide to basic rules of hygiene”. Besides being highly discriminatory on grounds of ethnic origin, this amendment gives legitimization to the unlawful racial profiling operations already carried out by the Greek police, targeting dark skinned migrants, particularly in Athens and provides space for the police to arrest and detain virtually any foreigner irrespective of her/his residence status as migrants, refugees or asylum seekers.
What is even more worrying is that detention on health grounds would represent a new legal basis for a programme of mass incarceration of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. On Thursday 26 April 2012, police units accompanied by health personnel (teams from the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) undertook raids in buildings where migrants are living in substandard conditions in central Athens and on Sunday 29 April 2012, one week before the elections, the Greek government opened the first of 30 newly planned detention centres in Amygdaleza, northwest of Athens.
International organisations such as Amnesty and Médecins du Monde have denounced that these measures specifically target the most vulnerable people based on discriminatory criteria, compel them “to go in hiding” preventing them actually from reaching healthcare services and go against medical ethics.
Furthermore, local and international organisations have gathered strong evidence according to which the spreading of contagious diseases amongst irregular migrants and asylum seekers is not to be attributed to the situation in the countries of origin but to the substandard reception and detention conditions faced by these groups from the moment they arrive in Greece and already condemned several times by the international community.
PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation for Undocumented Migrants and other immigrant and refugee rights organisations across Europe are considering the best ways to oppose these policies. We will have to wait for the new government to take office before being able to address any action to it. Meanwhile, it would be important that the European Commission clarified its role in the new Greek plan of mass detention and took a strong stand against the discriminatory amendment. Is it true that the European Commission funded the Amygdaleza’s centre? Is the EC planning to fund also the remaining 29? What role exactly will these centres have in the implementation of the amendment according to which migrants, asylum seekers included, can be detained on health grounds?
This blog entry was posted also on the website of Flyktingbloggen (Refugee Blog) on 3 May 2012.
 Coping with a fundamental rights emergency – The situation of persons crossing the Greek land border in an irregular manner, FRA, 2011, http://www.i-red.eu/?i=institute.en.publications.95. According to the Medicins du Monde – Greece, 63% of the contagious diseases reported in 2011 are to be attributed to the conditions in detention centres in Evros (Greece-Turkey border) area: http://www.tovima.gr/society/article/?aid=452852
 The Greek Minister for Health and Social Solidarity, Andreas Loverdos, attributed the increase in 2011 of HIV infections to the increase of African migrants in the prostitution rings. On the contrary, official state epidemiological reports (Center for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.hivaids.gr/pliroforisi/EPIDIMIOLOGIKO_HIV_2011.pdf) show that this is to be attributed to a +1500% increase among induced drug users (IDU). As NGOs indicate (http://www.tovima.gr/society/article/?aid=452852), due to budget cuts a program distributing free syringes to IDUs was interrupted in 2011 (and restarted again in March 2012) and this may have caused this rapid increase.