Near the end of 2000, the Greek government bought a building of 9,000 m² to house the Aliens and Transfer Centre in Attica (what would later be called the Attica Aliens Police Directorate). The facility, the Government claimed, would offer a comprehensive solution to the problems raised by the CPT in its reports, such as detention in police stations, overcrowding and in general unsuitable conditions.
Five years later, on 27 September 2005, Petrou Ralli, opened its doors, one of the first specially designed centres for the purposes of detaining foreign nationals, as set out in circular No. 38 of 23.12.2005 of the Ministry of Interior (OG 212 Α’/23.08.05). Operating without a clear legal framework, and with a capacity of 340, even before it was inaugurated, this site was criticized by CPT due to its carceral environment and resemblance to a police station. It was, CPT, suggested a missed opportunity to conform to EU standards. In 2007, when the next CPT delegation visited the centre, these initial concerns proved to be well founded.
Detainees in the facility are housed in cells along a corridor each of which has five cement beds. Entry to these rooms is through a barred, locked iron door, which afford detainees no privacy. The second floor holds men and the third floor houses women. A small wing on the third floor originally detained children but is now, primarily, used for those with illnesses.
Officially, children were transferred to the minors’ detention centre in Amygdaleza in 2012, but evidence suggests the facility continues to house particularly when there is no other accommodation available for those transferred from the islands. The CPT referred to children still being held there as recently as mid-2016, and heavily criticised the conditions in the centre, especially for children.
A similar story exists for women. While no women were held in Petrou Railli between 2015 to 2017, following the closure of the Elliniko women’s facility in January 2017, women detainees were once more located there on the top floor. The Elliniko women’s facility was closed in January 2017 when the police evacuated the centre following a protest rally, and transferred women to Petrou Ralli, ostensibly for their security.
Petrou Railli has a visitors’ room off the main corridor on the second floor comprised of metal sections with a screen in-between the detainee and the visitor. It is a dirty and unwelcoming space. In 2016 a new healthcare area opened on the second floor. Before that, the doctors and socio-psychological units were accommodated in two small and unwelcoming rooms.
When it first opened, detainees in Petrou Railli were confined in their cells all day, despite provisions for an outdoor area, which reportedly was not fit for use. During a visit in 2008, Human Rights Watch, met an Iraqi Kurd, who had been held for three months during which he had only been outside for 12 hours. New arrivals were not provided with clean sheets and blankets and much of the bedding was dirty. As in other centres, there was little to no access to toilets at night, leaving detainees with no choice but to urinate in bottles or defecate in plastic bags. In the cases of S.D. in 2009, R.U. in 2011, and Bygylashvili in 2012, the ECtHR ruled that the conditions of detention in the Attica Aliens Police Directorate amounted to ill-treatment.
Indeed, as research conducted in 2011, corroborates ‘entering Petrou Ralli it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the noise, the smell, and the dirt. Walls are painted an institutional light green and yellow. The floors are unwashed. In the men’s section, the smell of urine is pervasive. Everywhere, the stench of anxiety is palpable.’ (fieldwork notes)
Detainees then spent little time outside their cells and had nothing to do inside them other than to sit or lie on their beds all day. The listlessness was patent: ‘We are not doing anything, nothing. We end up sleeping all the time,’ Chiora from Georgia complained. For many it is distressing, ‘I fear I’m going to die here’, June from the Dominican Republic protested. ‘The police don’t understand my language and I’m afraid. It’s difficult’. Under these conditions, staff and detainees struggled to understand what was happening. Some staff members were critical: ‘It’s much worse than a prison.’ Alex claimed. ‘It’s the trap of temporary detention that doesn’t allow us to have the privileges of a prison. They are psychologically distressed here, I would go crazy myself.’ Others, like Vassilis, a senior police officer, who has served many posts, are more defensive. ‘In this current economic situation,’ he claimed, detention conditions are satisfactory’. In line with this, as research has highlighted, the provision of shelter to undocumented migrants was considered by the police as a marker of a civilised state in which Greeks (us) were pitted against uncivilised masses (them). ‘They are not able to freely move around, they can't talk to anyone, they just come to Greece and become slaves’, one officer claimed. ‘So, in a way, in here they have a better life, because we feed them and provide them with accommodation.’ (detention officer at Petrou Ralli).
In 2016 the Petrou Ralli holding facility was rebranded as a pre-removal centre. This new label, however, did not change institutional conditions or practices. According to a Border Criminologies research group that visited the centre the same year, under an ESRC project:
‘The facility was dingy and poorly maintained, with damaged floors, walls and ceilings. There were 5-6 police officers in uniform walking around the corridor but none on the detainee units. While there were cameras in the corridors, it was unclear how effective they would have been in monitoring what was happening on the wings. Detainees flocked to the gates as we walked down the corridor of the centre’.
The CPT’s report from 2017 corroborates these findings:
‘The material conditions were very poor. Most of the barred cells in the four male wings on the second floor were filthy, stuffy and infested; mattresses and blankets were generally worn and dirty. The communal sanitary annexes were unhygienic and in a poor state of repair and detainees complained that they did not receive sufficient hygiene and cleaning products. Further, detainees were locked in their cells for much of the day and the delegation found that outdoor exercise was not offered on a daily basis to all detainees and, at times, the amount of time offered hardly exceeded 15 minutes.’
In February 2017, a person detained at the facility died. Despite him declaring that he is a drug user suffering from hepatitis and others detained with him imploring the officers to take him to the hospital, the police did nothing. He was arrested and transferred to the facility on a Friday and during the weekend, there are no doctors or nurses on the premises. The doctors were only notified on Monday, when they confirmed his death. A video showing the conditions on the third floor of the facility where ill people are detained shows the poor state of cleanliness and hygiene. Back in 2015 the CPT had reported the ‘clear lack of an integrated approach in the delivery of health care…the poor mental health-care services available, the lack of medical screening upon arrival, long delays in the delivery of health-care and the lack of medication and its intermittent application for persons who are not in a position to purchase the prescribed medication.
Within this context, it is unsurprising to find evidence of tension and violence. On 31st May 2017, for example, detainees on the second floor of the facility, who had been detained for more than seven months, requested to see the director of the centre to ask about their cases and when they would be released. The officers refused to assist them. Detainees became agitated. According to official police records of the incident, an escape attempt was underway. The detainees were trying to break the iron doors which separated the area with one wing of cells from the rest of the detention compound. The officers on duty opened the iron doors at which point the detainees attacked them with handmade weapons. ‘We received continuous physical attacks, with the obvious intention to push us back and escape’, one of the detention officers, was recorded saying. ‘We took our truncheons off their cases but we did not have to use them because the detainees…they slipped over and hurt themselves’, he claimed. In contrast, unofficial accounts from detainees that is supported by video footage taken from the camera situated just opposite the wing, reveals that the detention officers angered by the demands and complaints of the detainees, unlocked the doors and within seconds, six of them started beating detainees, while pushing them back inside their rooms.
Two of the detainees were so severely injured that they had to be transferred to hospital. Nonetheless, a criminal case was built against the eight detainees, who participated in the ‘revolt’. Pending their trial, these men were transferred to eight different criminal prisons around the country in an obvious attempt to scatter them around to prevent any collective response. One year later, the trial, which took place in Athens over two days on 27 April and 23 May, despite glaring evidence of their innocence, found them guilty of revolt against the regime, causing physical damages and unlawful possession of weapons (i.e. a door hinge).
This episode is not unique. Physical violence by police officers against foreign nationals in detention centres in Greece is embedded in a long-lasting culture of abuse and impunity among the Greek police. In fact, the Petrou Ralli facility has been notorious over the years regarding the treatment of immigrants detained there (Fili, forthcoming 2021). As we observed in 2016 ‘one alleged that he had been beaten and abused by the police, that he was not illegal and he wanted help. He said many outside people came around the centre but no one made a difference to how they were treated. He spoke loudly and in the hearing of staff. It did not appear that anything had been done to investigate his allegations of abuse. We asked staff about investigations or complaints procedures but they were unable to tell us of one. The general attitude of detention staff towards detainees appeared to be one of suspicion; we were even told that the most important point to bear in mind following our visit was that ‘most detainees lie’. We did not speak to any other detainees and were moved fairly quickly away from the main corridor.’ Credible allegations, supported by medical evidence, of handcuffing detainees to the barred gates were also presented by the CPT in 2017.
In May 2018 a fire broke out in one of the cells. Even though it was quickly put out and left no casualties, it managed to burn a whole wing. The fire had allegedly been started as a sign of protest against the conditions inside the facility. The police response was immediate and vengeful. The 10 persons, who were thought to be implicated in this were ill-treated and transferred to an unknown situation. The rest of the detainees faced other repercussions, such as less food, no electricity, etc. The Border Criminologies research group revisited the centre in 2018, as part of monitoring visits by the National preventive Mechanism. According to the authorities, they did not have the financial capacity to renovate the burned wing, which meant less capacity and more overcrowding on the other wings. There was very noticeable, large graffiti on the corridor wall, which said ‘Fuck the police’ in English. Several detainees complained about broken phones and the director later said this was a result of detainees damaging them every week. The intense atmosphere in the centre was indicative of both a stressful physical environment and a high degree of frustration about cases. The layout of the women’s section today was the same as the men’s cells but the atmosphere is recorded to be calmer. The cell doors were kept open all day so that women could move around. There was some graffiti in the cells but most of it looked like children’s drawings. It was cold and damp and the women were sitting on their beds - they seemed bored. The centre director said that women detainees had two hours a day in the yard, one in the morning and one in the evening, but men had much less time because there were too many of them.
Since January 2018, medical services and psycho-social services have been provided by AEMY (Health Units SA), a state-owned company, whose previous experience included managing two clinics that offer primary healthcare and one hospital on a Greek island. As of the end of 2018, AEMy was operating with 10 staff (2 doctors, 3 nurses, 1 interpreter, 1 pshychologist, 1 social worker and 1 administrator). As the CPT noted in 2018, regarding the provision of health care in pre-removal centres, ‘the available resources are totally inadequate compared to the needs observed. The number of health-care staff in each of the centres is insufficient…There is also a total lack of effective routine medical screening of new arrivals, including screening for contagious diseases or vulnerabilities. In short, even the most basic health-care needs of detained persons are not being met.’ The centre is also regularly visited by lawyers from the Greek Council for Refugees and Aitima. Men used to be visited by solidarity groups but the police have lately restricted access to them. They instead organise rallies outside the facility to show support and solidarity to those detained. Women are visited and supported by volunteers’ groups such as Mov and the House of Women. The latter reports that on Sunday 2nd November, 2019, 16 women started a hunger strike protesting against their long-term detention in the facility.
At the end of 2019, there was yet another report of verbal, physical and psychological torture against the women detained there. 'Nothing is legal here. Lies, harassment, sexual abuse, illnesses, rejection,filth, ill-treatment, assaults, humiliation', are some of the words women used to describe their daily life inside the hellhole of Petrou Ralli, as it has been commonly referred to by detained men and women and those who visit them. Following this and other reports that describe a racist, sexist and xenophobic environment, in the beginning of 2020, the Greek Helsinki Monitor filed their 5th complaint to the Prosecutor & the Ombudsperson concerning serious allegations of police abuse, including sexual harassment, racism and degrading and inhumane conditions inside the centre. In March, one of the women attempted suicide by drinking detergent.
According to activists' testimonies, on June 9, 2020, women began a hunger strike to protest against the conditions of their detention. With pressure from the police to stop mounting, one of the women was hospitalised in critical condition, which forced the rest of the women to stop on 14th June. Inspired by this, on 15th June, men continued their struggle by beginning a hunger strike to demand their release or transfer to a camp. By mid-July at least two men continued the hunger strike for 33 and 23 days each. At the end of July, a newly arrived woman had to be transferred to the doctor’s office for her insulin injection. A male police officer volunteered to take her there but instead she was taken to the garage, where he assaulted her and attempted to rape her. This is not the first time sexual harassment by officers has been reported. The woman resisted and after the incident she sought legal help. Alarmed that another statement of sexual abuse from the same centre would be perhaps too much, the women yet another time (3 years after the first time in 2017) were transferred to another detention centre, Amygdaleza, without any prior notification. At the end of August, another account of the state of neglect that men and women detained in Petrou Ralli face came out, further adding to the list of damning evidence against the disturbing state of detention centres in Greece.
[the above is constantly updated]