People without any hope living in the Pagani detention center in Lesvos, Greece
10 September 2009
"Between August 20 and 28, I visited the detention center of Pagani to support the MSF team that has been providing psychosocial support to the undocumented migrants inside the center since July 27. The situation I faced, when I first arrived there was shocking. "In the center at that moment there were more than 900 people detained in extremely overcrowded and poor sanitary conditions. This is actually an old warehouse that is not suitable to accommodate people. "According to local authorities its capacity is for up to 300 people, but when I went inside I saw that in the building there were more than 900 people, men, women, adolescents and children, living in overcrowded cells, most of them sleeping on mattresses on the floor with no bed sheets. In each of the seven cells, including the cell of women and children, there are only two toilets and showers to be used by the 100 to 250 people detained in each cell. People eat their meals inside the cell and are not regularly allowed to the yard. "The situation was extremely tense in the detention center, as many people were held for many days without knowing when they would be released. Some of the unaccompanied minors had been in detention for 50 days or more already. The day I arrived, more than 100 unaccompanied minors were already on the third day of a hunger strike, protesting about the living conditions in the center and asking to be released. "In total more than 220 unaccompanied minors were kept in two cells. Fortunately that hunger strike ended the following day, as some of them were released and transferred to the hospitality center for unaccompanied minors in Agiassos. "What was very alarming for MSF was that there were also many women with small children inside the center. In one cell of about 200 square meters, we found more than 200 women with children. Out of the 68 children, 36 where under the age of five. Amongst them there were also five pregnant women in their 8th or 9th month of pregnancy. Two of them gave birth in the local hospital in the second half of August. Conditions in that cell were extremely overcrowded. You had to walk over dirty mattresses lying on the floor to move through. Because of the overcrowding and the poor sanitary conditions, most of the women were complaining that their children were sick and that they had not seen a doctor for days. "Many of the women who talked to our psychologist and me were in a very bad psychological condition, especially those who were detained in the center for a long period of time, often for over three weeks. They could not understand why they and their children were detained there in such bad living conditions. They were in distress and had given up hope, as they were expecting every day to be released from the detention center. They were uncertain about their future and all of them were asking to be released. "One Eritrean woman, kept there for more than 45 days, threatened she would hurt herself if she was not released. Another Afghan woman told me that she was shocked when she arrived in Greece and she was brought to this detention center, because she thought that she had finally reached Europe - Europe that has taught the world about human rights. So she was asking me why she and her elder mother were locked in there. "Our team was faced with a general situation of distress. Priority was given to the most vulnerable groups, children, unaccompanied minors and women. When we arrived, women had not been allowed out of the cell into the yard for a few days. One of the first things we did was to get children out of the cell and accompany them to visit their fathers in the rooms at the front part of the building. "That was a very touching moment for us to see the fathers hugging their small children through the bars of the cell, often crying. We also asked the police to allow the children to go out in the yard and we organized some group activities, so that children could make drawings and play. The psychologist was also able to conduct some individual sessions with patients, who needed special attention. "One father kept asking us about his wife and his newborn child that had been born a few days ago in the local hospital. His wife and the baby were still in the hospital and he was not allowed to visit them there. He was worried that his wife and his newborn baby would be brought back to the detention center. He also told us that he was afraid that he and his family would die in there. "It became apparent that the situation in the detention center was dramatic and that an immediate solution had to be found so that the 200 unaccompanied minors and 200 women with children would be moved to another facility. In an urgent meeting with the participation of local authorities, UNHCR and non-governmental organizations working in the center we tried to bring forward very strongly the humanitarian needs of women and young children and to pressure local authorities to find a shelter for them in another facility with better living conditions, where children would not be locked up in cells. "Local authorities came up with a temporary measure to host unaccompanied minors, women and children in an open holiday camping site in Lesvos. There, women and children could wait for their fathers to be released. In the next four days many women, children and unaccompanied minors were transferred from Pagani to the camping site, where living conditions were much better. However they could stay there only for a few days, until they could find a boat ticket to Athens. "Leaving for Athens they hold in their hands their release note, which states that their refoulement* is not possible and they are asked to leave Greece with their own means in the next 30 days. Two days later, a boat with approximately 300 people, mostly families and unaccompanied minors that had been released for Pagani arrived in the port of Piraeus in Athens. Among them there were two Palestinian families with small children and their mothers in their 8th month of pregnancy. There was also an Afghan family with a newborn child and two more young children. The aunt of the baby told me they decided to name her Daria, which means "sea", and kept telling me that she is a Greek baby now, as she was born in Greece. This family and a few more, in total 40 people, were stranded at the port having nowhere to go, looking hopeless. After a couple of hours the municipality of Piraeus took the initiative to host them temporarily in a shelter. While welcomed, this is however an ad hoc temporary solution. Indeed for all these undocumented migrants including such vulnerable cases there is no provision for shelter, food and very importantly access to health care. Their condition remains extremely critical in a country, like Greece, that does not ensure a minimum of access to health care for migrant families with young children, unaccompanied minors and people with health problems and does not cover their enormous humanitarian needs. MSF is extremely worried about the fate of all these vulnerable people, who face a future of destitution and uncertainty." * Non-refoulement is a principle in international law, specifically refugee law, that concerns the protection of refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. Unlike political asylum, which applies to those who can prove a well-grounded fear of persecution based on membership in a social group or class of persons, non-refoulement refers to the generic repatriation of people, generally refugees into war zones and other disaster areas.