It’s a Wednesday afternoon when the white bus pulls up at Omonia Square in downtown Athens. First to step off are two policemen, followed by 30 passengers, most of whom soon disappear into the streets of the city. But one man stands on the sidewalk, hesitating.
He is unshaven, his cheekbones protruding and he looks exhausted. “Can I go now?” he asks one of the officers. “Yes, you’re free,” the policeman replies. The man hikes a tatty backpack onto his back and mutters to himself, “Where?”
Tariq El Zorkany is 28 years old and claims to be from Egypt. He is one of the 300 irregular migrants and asylum seekers released from the migrant detention facilities of Amygdaleza, Elliniko, Xanthi and Paranesti.
A plan by the new Greek government to shut down the centers has been under way for the past few weeks, leading to the gradual evacuation of facilities across the country.
“These people have not committed any crimes. Their only transgression is entering the country illegally,” Alternate Minister for Immigration Policy Tasia Christodoulopoulou told Kathimerini. “From now on, detention will be a measure of last resort.”
But as they return to the spots where they were originally detained for failing to produce proper identification and travel documents, many of these people are coming face to face with a whole new harsh reality. After months of detention, they have to start all over again. Their apartments have been let to others, they are out of money and even their cell phone cards no longer work after months of nonuse.
Five irregular migrants contacted by Kathimerini after their release in February have yet to find a permanent home.
“I’ve lost everything. My house, my fridge, my bed, my money,” said El Zorkany. He seemed lost in the streets of Athens after spending 15 months at Amygdaleza, a former army base northwest of Athens. He went to cross the street but forgot to check for oncoming traffic and was nearly knocked down by a car.
When the government announced its intention to shut down all migrant detention centers in mid-February, former Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Dendias accused the leftist-led government of seeking to “take apart” immigration policy. In a written announcement, he stressed the dangers of released migrants falling prey to criminal groups and said that their return to the capital’s center risks a return to the “dramatic situation before June 2012.” Dendias was referring to the period when the former conservative-led government intensified its crackdown on illegal migrants.
Christodoulopoulou also expressed her reservations about the new scheme. She added, however, that measures are being taken with the help of social services to provide some support to released detainees, saying that “liberty also has its requirements.”
Until the deportation of irregular migrants who are not eligible for asylum, alternative measures are being taken to keep track of their whereabouts. These include authorities holding on to any travel documents they may have and a legally binding declaration of their home address so their movements can be monitored.
El Zorkany was given a paper protecting him from deportation for six months and the telephone numbers of several nongovernmental organizations. He will need to report to his local police precinct every three months. He has declared his address as being that of a friend in the downtown neighborhood of Aghios Panteleimonas. He borrowed my phone and called his friend. No answer. “Where am I supposed to go? I don’t know,” the 28-year-old said.
El Zorkany has been in Greece for almost a decade, arriving by boat, illegally, on Crete.
“I wanted a more laid-back life. Egypt is a very insular country; we don’t have the same freedoms,” he said.
When he arrived in Greece he told the authorities that first questioned him that he was Iraqi on the advice of his compatriots who said this would protect him from deportation. He applied for asylum and then found a job with a contractor on Crete. When the construction sector collapsed at the start of the crisis, El Zorkany moved to Athens, rented an apartment on Fylis Street and worked for a meat distributor. His personal details could not be corroborated, he was refused asylum and he was arrested in 2013.
To this day, the Greek state regards him as an Iraqi because he never submitted any documents proving his Egyptian nationality. The paper he was given at Amygdaleza before his release that grants him a stay from deportation contains the fake name he gave authorities when he first arrived. This was the name he was known as when he was arrested and detained, first at Elliniko and then Amygdaleza.
Back in downtown Athens, El Zorkany headed for a familiar neighborhood, Acharnon Street. He saw a compatriot walking a few blocks away, ran toward him and embraced him.
Mohamen Ramal, 45, had not heard from El Zorkany for months. He used to visit him at the detention center in Elliniko but lost touch after El Zorkany was transferred to Amygdaleza. “You’re coming home with me,” he told his friend.
Ramal’s home is a dank basement in an apartment building on Michail Voda Street, consisting of a tiny entrance hall, a narrow kitchen and a room just big enough for a bed and a couch. Ramal started cooking and offered us all a cigarette.
“I may have nothing but I have my brains,” said El Zorkany. “There are people who are free but cannot survive.”
El Zorkany had been awake for 24 hours, running on adrenaline. He hadn’t slept properly since he found out he would be released. After eating some food he got a haircut from a friend at a small barber shop in the basement of a nearby apartment block and returned to the apartment for his first shower in days.
“It’s been months since I’ve seen my face in a mirror,” he said.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to stay with Ramal for too long and told us that he’d probably end up somewhere else after a couple of nights. He was planning to call his former boss. “He hasn’t heard from me in so long. He doesn’t known what’s happened,” El Zorkany said. “I have to start from scratch again.”
The first irregular migrants were taken to Amygdaleza in April 2012. At the foot of Mount Parnitha, far from any residential areas, the state created a small settlement with over 200 prefabricated houses enclosed in fences and barbed wire.
The aim of the government at the time was for the detainees to be deported within four months of their arrival there.
This schedule was never implemented and Amygdaleza quickly became a place of long-term detention rather than a pre-deportation processing center. Communication problems with the consular authorities of the certain migrants’ home countries delayed repatriations, while at the same time migration inflows soared. A high-ranking police officer who spoke to Kathimerini on the condition of anonymity said that Amygdaleza eventually became a means of simply getting them “out of circulation.”
Overcrowding and extended stays started taking their toll and inmates began protesting, the most serious incident of which was in August 2013. Several prefabricated houses were torched and a group of migrants managed to escape. Some 60 of the escapees were later arrested and charged with attempted violent escape, among other crimes. They were acquitted by a court.
A year later, following an investigation on the facility, the Ombudsman ruled that detainees were receiving inadequate healthcare. The Ombudsman’s team had discovered an amputee who was a minor, as well as a man who had a hernia but was denied surgery because the funding did not cover his affliction.
Meanwhile, a prosecutor has ordered an investigation into recent reports that migrants were abused by guards at Amygdaleza.
“It’s terrible there,” said El Zorkany. He shared a wing with Mohamed Nadeem, a 28-year-old Pakistani man. On February 13, Nadeem made a noose with a towel and hanged himself. The following day, Alternate Minister for Citizens’ Protection Yiannis Panousis visited the facility and announced that it would be evacuated in stages. “Maybe he died so we could gain something,” El Zorkany said of Nadeem.
About a week later, once the evacuation had got under way, 300 protesters – among them members of SYRIZA’s youth wing – held a protest at Amygdaleza demanding the immediate closure of all migrant detention facilities.
“I understand the protest movements, I was once part of them,” said Christodoulopoulou. “They are in a rush because the conditions at these detention centers are inhumane and degrading. But we can’t just open the door and let them all out. It is one thing to demand unconditional freedom for others and another to want them to have freedom with prospects.”
The files of detainees are currently being processed to distinguish the asylum seekers from the other irregulars. All detainees who were kept beyond the 18-month limit stipulated by Greek and European laws have been released. There were less than 1,000 detainees left in Amygdaleza at the time of writing. Around 100 of them have been convicted of crimes and will remain until their deportation. The remainder are being gradually released in groups of 30.
There are also around 60 minors at Amygdaleza, from a total of 216 in detention centers around the country. The state is trying to find hostels and programs to take them in but there is a major shortage of specialized facilities.
The responsibility for housing them lies with the National Center of Social Solidarity, a branch of the Labor Ministry. An official there, Christos Dimopoulos, told Kathimerini that solutions are slowly being found for the minors, while three new hospitality units in Attica and in the southern Peloponnese, offering 150 beds, are expected to be ready by June.
Police sources told Kathimerini that at the current rate, Amygdaleza should be evacuated by end-March.
It should be closed down for symbolic reasons,” said Christodoulopoulou, adding that this cannot happen. “If we want to avoid the issue of having to return European funds then we need to find another use for the center.” What this could be was not clear.