Behind an iron gate at the end of a long corridor flanked by the offices of the Southeastern Attica Police Department is one of two immigrant detention centers operating in the Elliniko area since 2002.
Few of the people who visit the building to apply for a new passport or to file a complaint know that behind the dirty wall there are cells holding 100 illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Ukraine and other parts of the world. Most of the inmates in the ?new? (as police officers refer to it) detention center have been there for a period of three to six months, waiting to be deported. Only one or two, according to the officers, have been there longer, as they are also serving sentences for criminal charges related to drug trafficking.
The air in the room where the police officer on duty sits and processes new arrivals is heavy with the heat and the odor of people living in cramped conditions. The walls are adorned with an unusual collage of religious icons, photographs of border patrols and yellowing sheets of paper informing inmates of their rights in Arabic. Another wall holds a bookshelf, where boxes of the inmates? personal belongings, as well as their toothbrushes and medicines, are kept, while in a small room nearby there is an cigarette vending machine. ?A few years ago, the inmates were paying up to 20 euros for a pack of cigarettes, so we had to put in a vending machine,? the officer in charge of the detention center told Kathimerini.
At the metal door that leads from the office into the holding area of six cells, a group of immigrants had gathered, asking us questions in Arabic. Many had taken their shirts off because of the heat and most showed signs of skin problems related to the unsanitary conditions.
In one of the first cells we came to, a Georgian flag was hung on one wall and the inmates, all white, were playing cards underneath it. Further along, explained the police officers, the Muslim inmates have created a space in a room where they can pray and which they tend to fastidiously. The walled-in exercise yard is just a few square meters in area, though it does have two goal posts so that inmates can play soccer. While we were there, three young Africans came out with a half-deflated ball that they began kicking about, smiles radiating on their faces. ?See that guy?? said one of the officers, pointing to an inmate. ?He could go pro.? A clothesline was stretched across one of the walls in the exercise yard, used by inmates to hang out their laundry, while a large chimney in one corner had been covered by barbed wire after an inmate tried to scale it and escape in 2005.
The ?new? immigrant detention center is housed in a building that before 2002 served as the traffic police headquarters for Athens?s old international airport. It has a medical clinic staffed by members of a nongovernmental organization called med.in.
?The holding area is very small and it is overcrowded,? the volunteer doctors on duty told Kathimerini. ?Most of the inmates complain of dermatological problems, while there are 15 to 20 with psychosomatic problems, like asthma.? The doctors also see cases of inmates who injure themselves with plastic knives and forks in order to delay their deportation. In some extreme cases, detainees have covered themselves in their own feces so that officers cannot get near them.
The NGO has also been responsible over the past year for providing the inmates with all of their toiletries as spending cuts have drained the Greek police?s budget for such expenditures. The policemen (81 officers who work three shifts), however, said that they have a daily budget of 5.87 euros per inmate for other needs, while the food they are served is prepared in the kitchens of the central Attica police headquarters officers? club.
If things look bad in the ?new? detention center, they are a lot worse in the ?old? center, located two kilometers away in Elliniko on the site of the old US Air Force base. It has been in operation for some two decades in the basement that once housed the offices of American officers.
The heat is unbearable, and there is little light and ventilation. ?The air-conditioning system broke down last year,? said one of the police officers on duty. ?Thankfully, we got approval a few days ago to have it repaired.?
The 53 inmates being held there were mostly quiet and uninterested in our arrival. Only one young man, from Armenia, got up off his bed and came to talk to us. He admitted to being charged for drug trafficking and assaulting a police officer. He was transferred to the detention center from prison and is awaiting deportation.
?I was held in Thessaloniki. Then they transferred me to Petrou Ralli [in Athens] and then to Aspropyrgos. Here are my papers. Why won?t they let me go? I?ve worked in Greece for 13 years and for the past six months they?ve been moving me from one place to another,? he said.
The walls of the holding cells are still black from a fire that broke out during an inmate uprising in 1999, and they are adorned with photographs of women and slogans in different languages.
The ?old? detention center is one of 14 on a list published by the Citizens? Protection Ministry at the end of May and it is scheduled to continue operating as it has. In contrast, the ?new? immigrant detention center will from the beginning of 2012 be used instead as a reception center for refugees.