By YIANNIS SOULIOTIS, Photographs: ENRI CANAJ
Yasser, 27, came to Greece from Pakistan six years ago. Until his arrest four months ago for entering the country illegally, he had been working at a clothing manufacturer in the downtown Athens district of Patissia. On the afternoon of December 2, he was standing at the gate of the Amygdaleza Migrant Detention Center north of the capital, waiting to be deported back to Pakistan.
“My family doesn’t know I’m going back to Islamabad. I tried to stay in Greece but my asylum application was rejected,” he told Kathimerini. Together with 38 fellow countrymen, Yasser was on the first deportation flight organized by the European border agency Frontex and the Attica Aliens Department to leave Athens in some 18 months.
“Of the 39 Pakistani nationals on the flight, 32 have been convicted of various crimes ranging from robbery to drug dealing,” said Kyriaki Kyriakopoulou, head of the police department’s returns section.
Abid, for example, is 31 and served a four-year sentence for beating another Pakistani man. “I came to Greece 17 years ago. I lived on Crete and worked at a greenhouse in Rethymno. I was convicted for beating and robbing a Pakistani man. I spent four years in prison and was exonerated in November 2014 by the appeals court,” he explained. “But I was deemed a threat to the country, transported to Amygdaleza and now, 17 years later, I’m returning to Pakistan. I won’t stay there. I have a wife and child on Crete. I’m coming back.”
The operation by the Greek Police Department for Foreign Nationals, which is headed by Brigadier Manolis Grigorakis, began shortly after 3 p.m. on that Wednesday afternoon. The 39 migrants who were gathered in Section A of the detention center handed in their luggage, underwent a full body search and boarded a police bus so they could be transported to the holding area at the Petrou Ralli Street precinct and then on to Athens International Airport, each with an escort of two policemen.
“This is considered an easy operation; the flight is direct to Islamabad,” a young police officer told Kathimerini. “We get paid 140 euros per day for the operation and get an extra two days off.”
The Spanish-owned airplane was chartered by Frontex and the operation included the participation of Austrian and Bulgarian policemen, who were escorting Pakistani deportees from their countries, nine and four individuals respectively.
The flight had originally been planned for November 4 and was to take 65 Pakistani nationals to Islamabad. However, a day earlier the government there refused to grant landing clearance, arguing that Greece had failed to submit the relevant application by the deadline, 15 days before the flight was scheduled.
The Greek Police promptly filed a new request and the flight was slated for December 2. In the meantime, around 20 of the deportees applied for asylum in order to postpone their extradition and even though the Asylum Service investigated their requests immediately and rejected them as having no grounds, the deportees still managed to be exempted from the new flight.
On December 1, the day before the deportation flight, Islamabad raised more objections to the operation. The Pakistani government notified Greek authorities that it would only be accepting those for whom the Greek Police had filed a request for re-entry and not those who had been issued a passport from the Embassy of Pakistan in Athens.
“The consul of Pakistan visited us in Amygdaleza for the papers. I told him I didn’t want to go back,” said 22-year-old Ali, who had worked at a car wash in Aghioi Anargyroi, northwestern Athens, until he was arrested for having forged travel papers. “They can’t force me to go back.”
The convoy of vehicles (police vans and squad cars, as well as buses) escorting the migrants arrived at Gate B16 of Athens International Airport shortly after 8 p.m. As they waited for the boarding call at 11 p.m., the police officers distributed sandwiches and water to the migrants, and spoke with their Austrian and Bulgarian counterparts, the Italian “observer” from Frontex and the representatives of the Ombudsman who were supervising the process.
The head of the mission, police officer Argyris Gerogoulias, explained how the joint return operations with Frontex began in 2008. “By 2014, however, we could no longer cover the cost of per diems. Recently there was an agreement with Frontex for all return flights to stop at Athens. Since the start of October, we have participated in flights to Nigeria, Georgia and Albania.”
The airplane took off from Athens International Airport just after 11 p.m. and arrived in Islamabad several hours later. The Pakistani police allowed just 13 of the 39 passengers to disembark. The rest reboarded the aircraft for the return flight to Greece. The authorities in Pakistan refused to accept some of the migrants deported from Austria and Bulgaria.