Last Saturday, I went to visit Petrou Ralli, where the migrants of Athens both claim for asylum and are held in detention. On approaching the building and peering through the gates of an adjacent building, a police guarding the entrance called me over and asked where I wanted to go and what I was looking for. Playing the dumb tourist, I just explained that I was lost, wanted to get back to Athens, and wondered what these buildings were. He told me that it was a police station and that was all he could say, before demanding where I wanted to go, sending me for a bus to get there and observing me as I went to the bus stop.
Sneaking looks back towards the complex, you could see clearly from the street that there were people living inside, it was massive with multiple buildings and washing hung from the windows. Although the gates were completely open and police cars went in and out, the high fences and grills on the windows left you in no doubt that this was a high security place and one which you were not even allowed to look at. When the bus came, it passed over the bridge where the migrants who were rounded up on 4th August were met by armed police to receive them from the trains and a little shiver went down my spine.
Should you wish to claim asylum in Athens, Petrou Ralli is the place to go. They admit approximately 20 on a Saturday morning, no checks of papers are done at that time, and people can apply to become refugees and obtain legal status to stay in Greece. People start to go there from Thursdays onwards as people seek to become one of the first twenty people in the queue, jostling and squabbling over their place, hoping those in front of them will become disheartened and leave, allowing them to move one place forward. Indeed many cannot endure the ordeal of standing for three days straight in a sidestreet without access to food, water and toilet facilities, but even being first in the queue is no guarentee of access to asylum procedures, as on occasions twenty are simply chosen randomly from the waiting mass of people.
Several people have told me about how they tried to go there to claim asylum when they first arrived in Greece, but the long queue often in the searing heat with no shade, and the violence which breaks out from time to time, as hungry, tired and desperate people see their chance of claiming diminish eventually disillusioned them and they gave up even trying.
Petrou Ralli is also the place where you are taken if you are found to be without legal residency papers. The mere mention of “papers” to any migrant, by anyone in any position of authority whatsoever is enough to spark panic. Should you be stopped by the police on one of the many random checks that they do of non-white people in the street, or subject to a raid on your home and found to be without the legal documentation to stay in the country, Petrou Ralli is where you will be taken. Asking around to see if anyone knew anything more about Petrou Ralli, I found several people who had been held in the complex. Having had their documents destroyed by the police or the Golden Dawn and unable to replace them or manage to make an asylum claim, caught without papers, they are transported there.
There they are held, six to a cell in cramped conditions, with limited access to water meaning that basic hygiene needs cannot be met. The cells are described as filthy with no cleaning being done other than that which the residents try to manage, and that the bedding is not washed – even when someone leaves – and they are infested. The food is described as “disgusting”, most refuse to eat when they initially arrive, but eventually they must before they starve. Each floor houses approximately 100 people and there are three floors above ground, and at least four buildings which are interconnected. Rumours of two floors in the basement where conditions are much worse are spoken of, and apparently a move to those floors is used as a threat by the warders should anyone challenge their authority in any way, however minor, but whether this is a fictional bogeyman, or a reality is anyone’s guess. No-one that I spoke to had been held on these floors, but several who had been held inside had heard rumours of them.
Once an undocumented migrant has been picked up and held for three months, they are apparently given the opportunity to sign what they described to me as asylum papers, but which I suspect are actually deportation papers. Many refuse to sign, the reason that was given to me was because they wish to claim asylum in a country other than Greece. I cannot be certain of this, but I strongly suspect that these are deportation papers, and there is deliberate confusion on the part of the authorities to their purpose, in the full knowledge that most migrants do not have a working knowledge of written Greek, particularly for complex documents.
Should you be picked up again, having signed these papers, either for an infraction, or in a random check, you are immediately transported back to Petrou Ralli. Where there is no infraction and it is merely a random check, an infraction will be created. I am told that should you be picked up for a second time you don’t get the opportunity to sign to be released, and after this, no-one seems to know, but every migrant fears. People just disappear, presumably into one of the longer term holding camps.
Undocumented migrants queue up every week at Petrou Ralli, in the vague hope that they may be one of the lucky handful to gain admittance to claim asylum, these self same undocumented migrants have no problems getting in at all other times – they just don’t get back out again.