Beyond Borders

Greece’s treatment of migrants,
asylum seekers in the spotlight


Médecins Sans Frontières is urging the Greek authorities to carefully measure the impact of detention on the well-being of migrants and asylum seekers, to seek alternatives to the detention of new arrivals and to ensure that detained migrants and asylum seekers are treated in a humane and dignified manner and that those who wish to do so are given the possibility to seek asylum. MSF outlines criteria from a new report which looks at the impact of the Greek detention system on migrants and asylum seekers.

Every year tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine and Pakistan arrive in Greece, the southeastern border of the European Union. Many have left unstable or war-torn countries or are escaping persecution, human rights violations or extreme poverty.

Through its new report Greece: lives on hold from humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) aims to raise awareness and express concerns about the impact of the current detention system on the mental health and well-being of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Greece.

From August 2009 to May 2010, MSF provided psychosocial support to detained migrants and asylum seekers in three detention centers: Pagani in Lesvos, Filakio in Evros, and Venna in Rodopi. At the same time, MSF raised concerns with the authorities, urging them to improve living conditions and services provided in the detention centers. The report documents the unacceptable living conditions in the three detention centers where MSF intervened and presents data from psychological counseling sessions as well as individual testimonies. It shows that detention can exacerbate existing symptoms and contribute to new traumas and psychological distress.

The new arrivals include adults, unaccompanied minors and families. Lacking legal ways to travel to Europe, migrants and asylum seekers alike are forced to use the services of smugglers and thus often fall victim to exploitation or violence by criminal networks. Once they arrive in Greece, irregular migrants and asylum seekers are systematically detained. They are kept in detention centres located along the eastern Greek borders or in other detention facilities, such as police stations. According to the law they can be detained for a period of up to six months. Most are released within a few weeks and are given a written order to leave the country within 30 days.

Asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Greece have often experienced traumatic events. Almost one-third of MSF patients spoke about attacks by armed groups, bombings, beatings or other forms of violence that they suffered directly or witnessed in their countries of origin. MSF psychologists observed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 9.5% of the patients. A further 15% of the patients expressed anxiety and worry about family members they had left behind.

However, being detained was the single most important reason of frustration for the majority of the irregular migrants and asylum seekers. For most, detention was a painful and inhumane experience. Of the 305 migrants seen in first consultations, 39% presented symptoms of anxiety such as constant worry, fear, panic, restlessness, while 31% presented symptoms of depression, such as sadness, loss of interest, hopelessness, and thoughts of death. Three percent of MSF patients attempted suicide or self-harm because they felt detention was unbearable or because they wanted to protest about the length of detention.

Living conditions in detention facilities in Greece do not meet national and international standards. Overcrowding was a persistent problem in some detention facilities. Sanitary conditions are usually very poor. Overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions can contribute to the spreading of several medical conditions, including dermatological infections such as scabies and viral infections such as measles.

Not being allowed out of the cells into the fresh air was also a significant concern for migrants. In the detention centres where MSF worked, families were separated and were given little opportunity for communication, which increased feelings of anxiety and insecurity. Patients also complained to MSF teams about the degrading and abusive behaviour of police and other detention centre staff.

No provisions are in place to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors, infants, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. Detention centres lack support staff and interpreters. Migrants and asylum seekers receive no or little information about their legal status and the detention system.

Migrants consistently complained to MSF teams that they received inadequate medical care and had difficulties communicating with the doctors. Reasons for inadequate health care in detention centres included the insufficient number of medical personnel, the absence of interpreter services, and the lack of a standard protocol for the medical screening and follow up of new arrivals. In addition, detained migrants did not receive any psychosocial support apart from that offered by MSF.

ate of upload: 25th Sep 2010

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