Geographical location

36.86260091813, 27.160209417343

About the location

Location type
Detention centre

Until April 2019, the island of Kos did not attract many foreigners (apart from the summer of 2015). It, therefore, never became an over-researched field-site. The reception and pre-removal centres were operating at or under capacity levels, and while problems recorded in other islands were also found there, life for foreigners and authorities alike seemed uninterrupted by (negative) publicity. This, of course, does not mean that problems did not exist, but that, as it was never in the spotlight of either vast humanitarian operations, or media and research attention, Kos remained an opaque spot of migration governance in Greece.

Before the pre-removal centre opened, irregular migrants were detained in the Police Headquarters, with very little oversight or monitoring. Conditions in this striking 1920s building, which had previously housed the fascist administration during the Italian occupation of the island, the Nazi military services from 1943-1945, and the British administration until 1947, have been described as abhorrent, tragic and unbearable. Most detainees were there for months. Currently detention periods are much briefer.

The pre-removal detention centre on the island, which has been operational since 2017, opened amid great fanfare about it being able to ‘deter new migration flows’. It is located right next to Reception and Identification Centre of the island and has capacity for 500 men women and children in seven separate housing units with containers. Each cell contains two bunk beds, as well as a shower and a toilet. In 2018 conditions were evaluated as good by the CPT, while an open regime policy and allowing mobile phones were considered good practices. Yet, the Committee found the environment too carceral. Apart from three nurses, there are no doctors in the establishment, neither a psychiatrist. Similar to all detention centres around the country, there are no activities offered.

As arrivals to the Dodecanese and Northern Aegean islands increased in the spring and continued unabated in the summer 2019, reception and therefore detention procedures were significantly burdened. The reception and identification centre (RIC) with a capacity for around 700 people, quickly became overcrowded. At the time of the Border Criminologies research group’s visit in September 2019, the centre had reached more than 240% of its capacity levels, with more than 2,410 people residing in the camp, straining the available resources (e.g. toilets and accommodation) and services. 

With a reception service unprepared, floundering and a congested camp, the authorities resorted to a population exchange between the camp and the detention centre, using the nearby detention facility as a space management tool. While until April 2019, those detained for administrative reasons did not exceed 50, at the time of our visit, the pre-departure centre had reached its capacity. At the time of the CPT’s visit in 2018, 100 foreign nationals, comprising 85 single men and 15 vulnerable persons (including one family), were being held in the two wings of the centre that were in use. According to its Director, today there were 505 available places but he would not accept more than 420. Apparently, some time ago, the facility had agreed to ‘host’ people from the reception centre for space management reasons in one of its units. Quite expectedly, people had protested against this unlawful procedure and had reportedly destroyed the property, rendering the unit uninhabitable.

According to a report by ECRE, by the end of 2018 the ‘pilot project’, i.e. the policy of automatic detention upon arrival for newly arrived persons who belong to a so-called ‘low recognition rate’ nationality was implemented on Kos (as in Lesvos and Leros). On Kos it is only used for nationals of countries with a recognition rate lower than 33%. While the project initially focused on nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the list of countries was expanded to 28 in March 2017. As the detention manager and UNHCR representatives corroborated, however, by the time we visited, automatic detention was applied indiscriminately and en masse irrespective of nationality and refugee profile. Thus, for example, according to information we received from the UNHCR, in the beginning of September there were 87 Syrian nationals detained, as well as families with children. In a case supported by GCR, a Syrian national detained immediately after receiving the second-instance negative decision remained in the pre-removal centre of Kos for 12 months, despite the fact that he had submitted an application for annulment and suspension in time, and was only released after the Administrative Court of Rhodes ruled that the prolongation of his detention was not legally justified.

A lot of new arrivals have been recorded on smaller Dodecanese islands like Symi and Kastellorizo. Those arriving are collected and transferred to Kos with an order to be housed in the reception centre. However, as they are not direct arrivals in Kos, the Director of the Reception Service will not accept them ‘due to lack of space’ and put them through the usual screening process. Thus, they end up in detention for indeterminate periods of time. Whether they are prosecuted for ‘illegal entry’ and receive an expulsion order remains unclear. According to the Director of the detention facility, 3 days before our visit, 115 people had arrived from Symi, most were released as they had been deemed vulnerable (e.g. minors, pregnant women, health issues) and 38 remained detained under the pre-removal procedure.

In an apparent breach of reception regulations, those who are released and not admitted to the camp are left in limbo with nowhere safe to stay. We did indeed see people sleeping on the ground in the car park and in the forest outside the boundaries of the two camps. Similarly, those previously detained in the pre-removal centre and released with a geographical restriction decision, ordering the individual not to leave the island and to reside – in most cases – in the RIC, are not accepted in the reception centre either. As the Director of the RIC bluntly put it ‘We don’t have space for ex-detainees here’ because apparently, they pose security risks. This position is in line with widespread rhetoric that immigrants cannot follow ‘European rules’ and are generally unruly. ‘We tell them not to fight. In Greece, in Europe if we have a problem, we go to the authorities…After some time, the police intervene and arrest them’, confirmed the Director. As the Greek Council of Refugees observed back in 2016, people who show 'delinquent' behavior or cause problems and tensions in the reception centre of Kos, are detained for public security reasons, without being legally prosecuted most of the times.

Partly due to the relatively smaller numbers of arrivals, Kos has been a blind spot of migration governance in Greece, leaving the authorities, namely the First Reception Service and the Police, with a great deal of discretion they use arbitrarily and indiscriminately. In this context, ‘undesirable’ foreigners, who do not fall directly into the bureaucratic procedures of the Greek state or who are deemed to be ‘troublemakers’, do not fit into either the reception or the detention centre on the island. Instead they have been tossed around from one authority to the other, while the Directors of the centres try to diffuse their personal accountability and responsibility over those people. So routine has this exchange of populations become, that in our discussions with the Directors of the centres, attention has been shifted from the morality or legality of what is happening, to the operational details of making the exchange more efficient. In this process, people end up in detention arbitrarily and when released are left to fend for themselves with very little means available.  

[the above is constantly updated]



Borderlines of Despair: First-line reception of asylum seekers at the Greek borders

GCR (2016) Mission to Kos

European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane Treatment (2019) Report on the visit to Greece in 2018


Kos Kos