In October 2009, the Initial Reception Centre in Pagani on the island of Lesvos was officially closed, after a wave of revolts of the detained migrants and a worldwide scandalisation of the conditions inside the jail. Despite announcements of the government to build a new detention centre in Lesvos, Pagani is still the only detention infrastructure on the island. The former goods warehouse is used for the interim detention of newly arrived refugees and migrants. Unlike before, when hundreds of migrants where kept for months in closed cells, fewer people stay there for some days only until they are transferred to the reception centre on the closely located island Chios. However, since the closure of Pagani it has become clear that the old system of detention under horrible conditions cannot be continued and will be replaced by a more human rights compatible system of detention in line with the existing models in the European detention landscape.
Indicative of this change in policy, which also stems from the change of the Greek government in October 2009, is the statement of the then newly instated Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister Spyros Vougias during his visit of Pagani in October 2009, shortly before the actual closing of the detention centre by his ministery. He promised “to upgrade infrastructure and curb bureaucracy so that the migrants are detained for shorter periods of time and with more dignity”.
In the meanwhile, a working group at the ministry of citizen protection and public order, comprised of representatives of various state institutions, representatives of international organisations such as the UNHCR and the IOM as well as experts from various Greek NGOs worked on a proposal for the new detention system.
The proposal however only concerns the first steps in the detention of migrants and aims to set up a coordinated infrastructure where all migrants and refugees intercepted on the territory of Greece will be dealt with: as stated in the proposal, refugees and migrants arriving newly or being arrested in the inland due to “illegal entry and stay in the country”, will be taken “in confinement” and have to undergo a screening procedure which will result in the establishment of a personal profile. Consequently, the most obvious change in the system is that these new detention centres will be referred to as “screening centres”, and the period of detention in these centre is supposed to last at most 15 days.
During these 15 days, the detainees will be profiled by the staff of the centre, who will be doing a so called “first basic questionnaire” and a “personal report”. The basic questionnaire already includes the first data registration by the police – including the taking of fingerprints – , a general medical examination carried out by the medical staff of the Centre and a basic social assessment by a centre’s legal expert. The object of the social assessment is to ascertain whether a refugee/migrant is in need of international protection by asking for reasons of departure and her/his intention to apply for asylum. All the “special scientific personal”, i.e. medical, psychological and legal experts have to write a “personal report”, which describes their comprehensive conclusions and results.
This profile will determine the future path of the detainee. Having applied for asylum he/she will be handed over to the actual asylum system, for which a new asylum agency is supposed to be established. Other “vulnerable groups” like minors will go to special reception centres, as long as there are such facilities available. But all those who do not fall under the categories will be detained further awaiting deportation.
It is quite clear that one concrete aim of the proposal is to provide a human rights compatible front to the Greek system of migration control. Given the financial crisis of the Greek state, one might wonder whether actual money will be spent on the establishment and running of such centres as well as on the training of the necessary personal. As the proposal states quite clearly, the European Borders Fund might pay for the construction of such centres, but running costs etc. cannot be covered. Other European funds are very specific and might also not be accessible. So is the screening centre proposal just a theoretical move, a mere message that something is actually happening after all the criticism?
It would be misleading to understand the proclaimed humanitarian standards of the new system as an ulterior motive. Rather, one needs to consider the political economy of the europeanisation of migration control. One main element is the European deportation regime under the name of Dublin II. In effect it delegates all responsibility for asylum seekers to the EU member states at the external border of the EU (mainly countries in the south and east of the EU). It however hinges on those states having an asylum system compatible with the self-proclaimed human rights standards of the EU. As the shortcomings of the present Greek system had been documented so extensively that they could no longer be ignored, the current state of affairs posed a threat to the functioning of Dublin II, the system was on the verge of failing. It is in this larger European context that the proposal for the establishment of screening centres was put forward, and it is no surprise that a lot of EU member states from the north (all those that gain from Dublin II) are hugely involved in “assisting” the Greek government with the proposal, thus effectively shaping the new system to their intentions.
So even if the screening centre system will only be established as a token, in a Potemkin village style, it will already have served its purpose, not by providing protection to those in need, but by giving the northern EU states an excuse to continue their policy of deportations within Europe.
On the long run, and from the perspective of those arriving in Europe, the screening centre system stands for much more. At the present point, the Greek state does not exercise much control over the movements of migration, does not know much about the individual ways and intentions: it is in a state of apathy. The screening centres however are a clear attempt to regain sovereignty over migration by forcing each and everyone to first submit to scrutiny of individual motives and then to submit to the rules set by the state. As all those that don’t state their wish to enter the asylum system and its procedure are threatened with deportation, it is not prophecy to believe that everyone caught in this new type of detention will be an asylum seeker in the end. However, it will be the system that sorts people into the different categories and thus restricts their possibilities to move freely.
These considerations are not just theoretical. The crucial point for the new system to work would be if there is a functioning deportation machinery attached to it. Currently, the threat of deportation is a mostly empty threat of the Greek state to the detained migrants, which expresses itself clearly in the fact that most migrants do not apply for asylum, but rather wait for their release in order to move on. Ironically, the “white paper” that allows them to move freely for a month is an actual deportation order. The new system needs to create the conditions for deportability, and not surprisingly, Frontex, the European border agency is involved in “removal capacity” building through its operation Attica since December 2009. To this end, a special deportation centre was set up in Athens, and Frontex entered into direct negotiations with Nigeria and Georgia to enable deportations to these countries. That this is just experimental and that the list of countries will grow is for sure. At the same time, the Greek implementation of the European Return directive is still in power, having extended the maximum duration of detention from three months to a possible 18. The political will is to restrict the mobility of the migrants.
While the border remains porous and cannot be sealed off completely, despite all attempts, the screening centres system takes the border inside and into the territory of Greece and the EU. There should however be no doubt that the externalisation of the border remains the number one aim. Greece and the EU have long sought to (and continue to) include Turkey into the European migration regime. Greece recently renewed its bilateral readmission agreement with Turkey, in which the Turkish side has agreed to accept at least 1,000 readmission requests a year from Greece. Turkey also promised “to set a port at or near Izmir to operate within three months as a border station to readmit illegal migrants”. An agreement between the EU and Turkey is pending, though negotiations are going on, and they might for some more time without reaching a conclusion. The screening centres system will not replace the fortified and externalised border, it will only allow for the “management” of those that will cross the border despite all efforts to seal it.