Photos: Vassilis Vafidis
A few days after the opening of the first detention centre for illegal immigrants, the residents of the Athens suburb of Aharnes have mixed feelings. After wild and sometimes violent protests, the first 56 immigrants were transported to the centre. Workers who were still working were the proof of Minister of Citizen Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis' impatience to comply with the "promise" that the first centre would open before the elections.
The centre is located at the foot of Mount Parnitha near the Police Academy and only a few hundred metres from the first houses of the neighbourhood. The small finished houses are furnished with bunk beds, wardrobes and a bathroom. The whole complex is surrounded by a shiny new metal mesh. Coiled wire over it prevents any idea of escape. Today, shortly after 1 pm a group of immigrants was walking in the courtyard. Others were standing in the shade waiting for lunch. It was quiet all around and only the poster opposite of the entrance of the military unit showed that protests were taking place there.
Further down the street, however, the traffic lights at one of the most central crossroads are not working. They had been broken during the recent violent protests held by some of the residents of Aharnes. The first thing visitors see in the suburb is the inscription on an abandoned building, which reads, "Out illegal immigrants from our city. We want to live in safety and with dignity. That is enough!"
The slogan sounds extreme, but it represents the opinion of only some of the people. Impressive is the reluctance of many people to talk especially before the camera about the centre and the reactions it has caused. This applies to both the opponents and those, who are more favourably disposed.
Yiannis, 48, whose house is located very close does not mince words. "I am against the centre. How is it possible to keep them here, close to the young people studying at the Academy? Now, they have found cases of HIV positive. There is no way for us to know what diseases the immigrants in the centre are suffering from. And finally, why should we feed people who have not paid anyone or anything to the state? I think it would be much better if they had sheltered Greeks who have been hit by the crisis and lost their homes. If the Minister lived here, would he build the centre next to the house where his child lives?"
According to him, the problem of illegal immigration can only be solved by closing the borders and by the withdrawal of Greece from Dublin 2, according to which immigrants must remain in the first European country of arrival.
Interestingly enough, despite his firm position, he is against the extreme forms of protest against the centre. "We should not close the road and prevent people from passing. They can easily line up sideways and the message will reach more people. We must not allow ourselves to get into confrontation with each other. "
According to Mr. Nikos, however, there must be centres. "Not only from now on, but this should have happened a long time ago. Greece is not able to take more people. Therefore, they must be captured and extradited to their countries." He did not express any fears about the fact that the centre is located near his home because "the security is very good." His wife is of the same opinion but she believes that the centre could be built away from inhabited areas, because "no matter how good the security is, you cannot know what you will wake up to."
The immigrants themselves are not happy with their stay in the centre either. Two of them have already requested to be extradited and it remains only to arrange the necessary documentation. Yesterday, a team of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited the centre and noted that the conditions in it are much better than in "other facilities for foreigners."
Representatives of the international organization expressed serious doubts about the procedure under which illegal immigrants are being captured from the street en masse. According to them, refugees entitled to international protection could end up in the centres. They blamed Greece for the extremely limited access to the asylum granting procedure too.
The High Commissioner has also recalled that the detention of undocumented foreigners is possible only for a certain period of time and only with a view to extraditing them to the country of origin or from which they came. "If extradition is not possible for legal or practical reasons, the effectiveness of the measure is questionable."
According to Filippos, aged 20, "It is not possible to make such centres in Greece and 'store' people in them." He believes that the Greek authorities must issue the necessary documentation and allow the immigrants to leave the country "because the majority of them aim to reach one of the countries in Western Europe. Greece, in turn, has to stop taking part in military conflicts that cause immigration." As for the construction of the centre in the suburb in which Filippos lives, he believes that the aim is to decrease the prices of property in this neighbourhood that has been neglected in recent years. "Moreover, the issue is used for propaganda purposes, namely to increase the strength of the extreme political forces," he said.
Despite the protests, the Ministry is determined to fill all the 1200 sleeping accommodations in the centre by the middle of May. For their part, the majority of residents believe that these actions have only an electioneering purpose. They have expressed their concern that immigrants "might never leave the centre or simply be set free in Athens."