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Migrants held in shadows

(The New York Times) / 31 December 2007

They are in railroad depots. They are in old grain stores and recycled factories. Some are brand new, others are in adjuncts of prisons. One is on a ship anchored in the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

From Ireland to Bulgaria, from Finland to Spain, detention camps for foreigners have mushroomed across the European Union. They have emerged mostly over the past decade, as the region has grown less and less welcoming to migrants.

There are now 224 detention camps scattered across the European Union; altogether, they can house more than 30,000 people—asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation—who are often held in administrative detention for as long as 18 months. In a number of EU countries, there is no upper limit on detention length.

‘Detention is a very serious measure in a democratic society—governments deprive people of their liberty when they are convicted of a serious crime,’ said Katrine Camilleri, a refugee lawyer in Malta with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which on Dec. 18 published a report on conditions in detention centers in the 10 newest EU states.

‘These people have committed no crime, and though human rights law allows for detention in very specific cases, even then you can’t detain people forever. Even 18 months is a very long time; it destroys them,’ said Camilleri, who has just been honored by the UN refugee agency for her work in the face of arson attacks on her car and home.

The smallest centers hold a few dozen people; the biggest, more than 1,000. A network of them has quietly taken form with little scrutiny and few established norms, sometimes reusing old sites, like Rivesaltes in the south of France, which was one of the biggest French internment camps for Jews during World War II.

And they have spread outside of Europe to places like Libya, where Italy builds and pays for detention centers to house migrants it deports.

Governments contend that they are trying to manage a bureaucratic nightmare and contain a security risk: the rise of migration by stealth, in which people deliberately hide their identities when it suits their cause and clog up strained asylum systems with dubious claims.

The result is a patchwork of standards. Even the best centers are strung with cameras and coils of barbed wire; the worst are infested with vermin, lack medical care and, according to a 300-page study commissioned by the European Parliament, are subject to riots, arson attacks and suicides.

Dimitris Vouros, the lone court of appeal lawyer employed to assist refugees on the Greek island of Samos, was among those relieved to see its old detention center finally closed. Inside it, a year ago, protesting Iranian inmates sewed up their lips with wire.

‘The new building is like a small hotel inside, but on the outside, half the community of Samos call it ‘Guantanamo,’’ Vouros said, of the new 2.5 million-euro, or $3.7 million establishment.

The psychological impact of incarceration can be severe, particularly for the young. In Denmark from 2001 to 2006, the rate of suicide attempts among inmates was six times that of the Danish population, according to the Danish Asylum Seekers Advice Bureau.

Governments are reluctant to admit to their existence, let alone permit entry to the camps; a reporter was denied access to centers in Greece and the Canary Islands of Spain; under the government of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy barred even the United Nations refugee agency from its center on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The current Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, later allowed the agency in.

The camps are concentrated along Europe’s eastern and southern borders, while a large swathe of them runs east-west through Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany, according to Migreurop, a network of researchers and lawyers that has mapped the phenomenon.

Some of the largest ones are close to Europe’s migration pressure points. The biggest is in the southern Italian town of Crotone, with 1,100 places, according to Migreurop; next, says Camilleri, are two in Malta with room for 800 each.

The total known capacity for all the ‘closed’ EU camps is 30,871, according to the European Parliament study. When ‘open’ camps, to which asylum-seekers are obliged to return at night, are included, the total rises to 40,979.

The establishment of these centers has failed to stanch the flow of migrants, and Europe is now looking for help beyond its borders. Bilateral agreements, raising concerns about dubious alliances and human rights violations, have given rise to camps in peripheral states like Morocco, Tunisia, Ukraine, Libya and Turkey.

Turkey excludes non-Europeans from its refugee policy, and Libya has not signed the Geneva Convention on refugees.

Italy has nonetheless struck a secret accord with Libya, where it has built at least one detention camp and is funding two more, according to Rutvica Andrijasevic, a researcher at the Center on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford in England.

Claire Rodier, a lawyer and president of Migreurop, says that the camps have sprung up in Europe over the past 10 years. Some countries like Britain have long had them, she said; others, in nations like Malta and Greece, were built as Europe shifted toward exclusion.

Now, all over Europe, makeshift measures are becoming permanent by default and under the weight of numbers.

A former barracks on Lampedusa, which has neither a secondary school nor a maternity hospital of its own, has been replaced by a giant new center built for migrants rescued in their thousands at sea. The Netherlands is planning to shift some of its detainees to two floating platforms in 2008.

The Rivesaltes camp in France was relocated close to the Perpignan airport in November while in April, Greece opened a new, 374-place center at Filakio, a remote village on its northern border with Turkey, that was meant to replace two others, at Vresika and Peplo, that the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had requested be closed.

But in December Vresika, a windowless grain store in a desolate farming hamlet near the Evros River, contained 140 men to whom a reporter was denied access. They had no medical care or telephone, according to the UN refugee agency.

In some places temporary measures have become year-round fixtures. One of these is the tent village on the island of Malta.

In Ireland and Germany, detention centers are usually in prisons. Many others are at airports, like those in Vienna, Paris, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Manchester and London.

Many smaller holding centers, containing 20 people or fewer, are dotted around Europe but are not plotted on the Migreurop map. Some are sections of police stations, like one run by nuns in the basement of the central police building on the Ile de la Cite in Paris; another dozen are strung out along the Greek border with Turkey.

With little outside observation, conditions in the camps often fall far below international norms.

Residents of Samos are still reeling from the exposure of conditions in their old detention center, a former tobacco factory where arrivals were assailed by the stench of vomit, urine and sweat, where sewage seeped into the dormitories and severe overcrowding meant people slept in rows on the floor.

It was there that a group of Iranians, frustrated at the length of detention, staged a hunger strike in 2006. They fashioned needles with a lighter and the rolled-up ring-pulls of Coke cans, and sewed their lips together with wire extracted from an electrical plug.

‘You can’t imagine—I didn’t know who to call first, the prefect, the police, the hospital, the doctor,’ said Ireni Tremouli, 26, the social worker who had to deal with the situation.

Refugee lawyers who have visited it say a camp in Venna, located in an abandoned railroad depot 35 minutes outside the northern Greek city of Komotini, is plagued with vermin.

‘They are living here with rats,’ said Evgenia Papanastasiou, an attorney in the nearby Greek city of Kavala. ‘The railway depot is five kilometers from the village and when the UNHCR came in the authorities cleaned up the place and burnt the mattresses,’ she said. Ten days later it was full again.

Police officials responsible for managing the Greek detention centers where conditions are poor say they are only temporary places, or that inmates stay there only a few days while awaiting medical checks.

Neither the Greek Interior Ministry nor the border police would allow a reporter access to any of the detention centers on the Turkish border.

Officials may be using conditions in the camps and lengthy detention periods as a deterrent.

‘If conditions are too good, they think it might be a ‘pull factor’ for more aliens to come,’ said Panagiotis Papadimitriou, the UN refugee agency’s border monitoring officer in Greece. Such tactics were doomed to fail, he said, pointing to the ‘unacceptable’ conditions on Samos that did not keep migrants away.

Camilleri agreed. ‘Trying to use detention as a deterrent is to ignore the reasons why people leave,’ she said.

The average length of detention in camps around the European Union is 12 to 18 months, Rodier said. In France it is 32 days, in Spain, 40, in Italy 60, and in Greece, three months. Germany has no upper limit for asylum seekers, while a visit to Malta by members of the European Parliament in March 2006 found that some foreigners had been in detention for more than five years.

In January, the European Parliament will debate a directive, backed by Germany and vehemently contested by rights bodies, that would allow detention for 18 months throughout the EU.

The purpose of detention, in Rodier’s view, is to give a country sufficient time to collect enough people of the same nationality to fill a deportation flight, with France sometimes teaming up with other EU countries to fill a charter plane.

Critics denounce the mixing at many camps of people awaiting decisions on asylum claims with those awaiting deportation.

Critics say that the camps violate many rights. Interpreters and legal aid are often not on hand for those needing to request protection. Other centers, according to Rodier, fail to uphold right to family life and private life, the rights of minors and the right to physical integrity, given the psychological effects of long periods of incarceration.

‘We believe,’ said Madeline Garlick, who serves as a liaison with the European Union for the UN refugee agency in Brussels, ‘that asylum cases should not as a rule be detained, and that this is particularly important for vulnerable people—children, unaccompanied minors, and torture and trauma victims.’

Papadimitriou said that officials in Athens were turning a blind eye to what was going on in the border camps.

‘They don’t send interpreters, doctors, people who can assess the needs of the people entering—there are refugees and people needing international protection,’ he said. ‘They just think these people are numbers.’

 
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