Greek police were today searching for eight Pakistanis and two Afghans who escaped during a riot at an immigration detention centre, where human rights groups say migrants and asylum seekers face unacceptably long periods of incarceration in often appalling conditions.
Clashes broke out on Saturday evening at the Amygdaleza centre northeast of Athens, where 1,620 migrants are being held as they await deportation or approval of their asylum applications. Some set fire to their beds and hurled stones and water bottles at guards after learning that the maximum detention time was being extended from 12 to 18 months.
Police quelled the riots with stun grenades and tear gas and returned most migrants to their holding containers just after midnight, but were yesterday searching the neighbourhood for the ten men who fled during the chaos.
Photographs on the Hellenic Police website showed charred containers and a vandalised police car, and a statement said the migrants “attacked without provocation” and injured 10 officers. At least 50 people were arrested for causing damage or trying to escape, it added.
Greece has a 125 mile border with Turkey, and for years it has been the entry point of choice for migrants from Africa and Asia trying to make their way into the European Union for work. Their numbers have been swelled in recent years by people claiming political asylum and refugee status from the Arab Spring nations.
This influx of migrants coincided with the economic crisis which forced Greece to implement punishing austerity measures. Anger at high unemployment and deteriorating quality of life has often been focussed at migrants, with increasing attacks reported on ethnic communities across the country. Support for the far-right Golden Dawn party had soared.
In an effort to curb the influx of migrants, the Greek government last year launched Operation Xenios Zeus, beefing up security at the Turkish border and dramatically reducing the numbers coming overland.
But human rights groups say the crackdown is exacerbating abuses. In a report released in June, Human Rights Watch detailed dozens of cases of unjustified stop and searches, verbal abuse, and some cases of physical assaults of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, has accused Athens of illegal “push backs” – rounding up people who have made it onto Greek soil and returning them to Turkey before assessing their claims for refugee status. Greece denies the claims.
Those who do make it into Greece face long waits as their asylum applications are processed, with most eventually turned down to discourage others from trying to enter the country. Some inmates at Amygdaleza staged a hunger strike earlier this year to protest at conditions as the camp the Greek government calls a “closed hospitality centre”.
“The conditions refugees and migrants are being held in are often appalling. In fact, when we visited people in those cells it was difficult to remember we were actually in the EU,” Amnesty official Jezerca Tigani said in a report in July.
As Greece increases security on its land frontier, migrants are increasingly turning to riskier wqays into Europe, including dangerous sea routes. Italian authorities at the weekend recovered the bodies of six migrants they believe were killed in shipwreck.