The Greek island of Lesvos is just a short sail from the Turkish coast - you can see Turkey from the island. Here many migrants try crossing into Europe, usually on inflatable boats. Frontex patrols the coast to prevent them from landing; those who land may be detained in one of the most appalling prisons for migrants we have ever seen or heard of.
47 unaccompanied minors, mainly from Afghanistan but also from Somalia and Palestine, went on hunger strike Monday 1st of September. Four of them refused water as well. However they all have now resumed eating and they are hoping to be released by the authorities. Some of the minors who went on hunger strike have been imprisoned for a long time, up to 60 days.They want freedom and to be able to contact their families, who do not even know where they are. By law, unaccompanied minors are not supposed to be imprisoned, and their continued detention is totally illegal. There are allegations of self-harm amongst the minors as well as beatings by police.
Thursday morning we held another noise demonstration outside the prison and we talked with some of the migrants inside. They were very happy with our support, all shouting 'freedom/ azadii!' and 'no borders!' through the bars. Little children were particularly enthusiastic in chanting, as usual.
Due to the pressure of a previous hunger strike by 160 minors and every day mobilizations from the No Borders camp, over a hundred of minors were released last week, as well as dozens of families with small children and some adult men, over 250 people in all. Before, there were about 900 migrants kept in a prison designed for 200, in unimaginable conditions. People develop throat and respiratory problems because they cannot breath in the overcrowded cells, they cannot move because they are locked in the cells all the time and they have 20 minutes air in the courtyard every week! They sleep in three/ four levels bunk beds or on the floor. The food is awful and people have been complaining that the water is undrinkable: "if you drink this water you will never want to drink water again" one said to us. There is only one toilet and one shower for some 100 people, the sheets and blankets are filthy because nobody bothers changing them and the smell is terrible. There is only one doctor in the centre, who according to the detainees does not care, and one psychologist from Medicines Sans Frontiers, who according to the detainees is good - but how can she work in such conditions?
A video was made inside the detention centre and circulated widely all around Europe.
Even the UNHCR said Pagani is 'inhumane' and must be closed down.
No Borders held several demonstrations outside Pagani, activists occupied the courtyard and the roof of the prison, braving brutal attacks from the riot police - many activists were injured, though not very badly apart from broken fingers, dislocated wrists and ankles, bruises of various extent... I was hit on the head for doing absolutely nothing but standing there, not a very strong blow because I just fell down, feeling all dazed and confused, and I got up again...
A delegation of international lawyers, doctors and activists went visiting the centre and negotiated with the authorities the release of the minors and the mothers with their children. The women refused to leave without their husbands and brothers, whose release had to be agreed as well.
Saturday the 29th there was a mass release of minors, families and some grown up men, they were happy and cheering, holding a white paper that is in fact an order of leaving Greece in 30 days. They have all been fingerprinted now, which will render it very difficult for them to be granted asylum in another country: under the Dublin 2 agreements they will be sent back to Greece, where it is practically impossible now to get asylum. However some of the migrants had the white paper for days or weeks, they spend most of the 30 days allocated in detention and they will not be able to leave the country in a few days...which could led them being detained again. I asked a solicitor what can be done about it and she said solicitors tried again and again to get an extension of time in such cases and they could do nothing.
The migrants freed from Pagani were moved to an open camp called Pikpa, near the airport, where they were free to come and go and had plenty of fresh air, a beach nearby and plenty of room for the children to play. Although overcrowded, after Pagani it looked like paradise.
A seventeen years old from Afghanistan told us they are all very grateful to Allah and to No Borders, as without our help they would not have been released and would have been deported back to Turkey.
There is another open centre at Aiassos, 120 people at the moment, from the age of 14 to 23, only male migrants, just a small minority of those arriving on the island.
But migrants are still taken to Pagani and the authorities' practices have not changed. According to a man imprisoned in the centre, there are about 700 people detained in Pagani at present, men women and children. According to another there are 35 to 45 people being taken to the detention centre every day. For certain there are many more people in Pagani now than there were last Saturday, because we can see inside some of the cages. Today I went to Pagani and the women and children were out in the courtyard, for their 20 minutes air a week. I counted about 35 women and 25 children, toddlers and babies - I could not make a precise count because they kept moving, mainly to see their husbands, fathers and brothers inside the various cages: it was curios indeed to see fathers holding their children through the bars of the cage...
The minors who went on hunger strike this week say they are now 61 in their room: after the mass release last Saturday there were only 35, and some more were later released too, we met them in the open camp. So more than 30 minors have been imprisoned in that room only in the last week.
Saturday 29th August many migrants were released and taken by three buses to the open centre. Most of the families released from Pagani were able to travel to the mainland on Monday, but the minors were kept from travelling at last moment because the immigration minister ordered their bus to be cancelled - he said because it was a danger for the minors to travel with anarchists - many activists were leaving from the no borders camp on that day, on the same ferry with the migrants. The boys were all ready to go, with their bags on their backs and they were disappointed Some boys decided to go anyway and made their own way to the port, and they boarded the ferry no problem. Instead, due to increased police controls at the ferry port, 25 migrants without papers were arrested. However there were no paper checks on the ferry as rumor had it, and more activists and the media were waiting to welcome the migrants when they arrived at Pireus (Athens). As for the minors who were left behind, they have now all left by ferry. There are only a few people in the open camp now, they will leave tomorrow. And tomorrow the open camp Pikpa will be closed down. Those fortunate enough not to be imprisoned in the in inhumane centre Pagani will be sleeping in the street, men, women and children.
The future looks very bleak, as the Greek authorities have announced plans to open another, huge detention centre for migrants on the island of Lesvos. Welcome to Europe!
Article published first on 04. Sep 2009 @ :: indymedia.org.uk