Violence in Patras Port: Ill-treatment of refugees as deterrent to migration
Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) fact-finding mission (27 to 28 March 2018)
On 5 March 2018, a 14-year-old refugee boy from Afghanistan was allegedly ill-treated by coast guards in Patras port in Greece, while he was trying to stow away to Italy by hiding inside a truck. The boy was reportedly stabbed by coast guard in his foot and was beaten with batons. He was transferred to Patras General University Hospital and the case received publicity. On the same day, “The Movement for the Defence of Refugee and Migrants Rights in Patras” (a local solidarity group) issued a press release[i] strongly condemning the incident. According to the press release, policemen and coast guards in civilian clothes visited the hospital where the boy was receiving medical treatment in order “to say… that the boy was injured by himself! and… to take away his shoes”.[ii] A disciplinary investigation into the incident was ordered by the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy. The outcome is not yet known.
Prompted by the reporting of this incident, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA)[iii] staff conducted a two-day fact-finding mission to Patras between 27 and 28 March 2018. The purpose of the mission was to research and document other possible incidents of ill-treatment of refugees and migrants by state or non-state actors inside and outside of the new Patras Port[iv]. The March 2018 mission was a follow-up to previous research and documentation work conducted in 2012 by PRO ASYL[v] and the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR). The research resulted in the publication of the report “I came here for peace”.[vi] Six years ago, the interviews held with dozens of refugees and migrants described systematic ill-treatment by law enforcement officers in the port area of Patras and highlighted the persistent impunity and the lack of an effective investigation of those incidents at that time.
Upon their return to Patras in March 2018, RSA researchers witnessed again dozens of young refugee and migrant men (including minors) trying to sneak inside the new port. They were climbing over the metal fence and trying to hide themselves in trucks with destination to Italy. Predominantly dressed in filthy dark clothing with just a small bottle of water bound to their back, they were running inside the port, while in the background one could see ferry boats and cargo ships sailing to what the young refugees perceived as the way to a secure and peaceful life.
The city experienced some quite months in 2015, when an unofficial corridor opened in the Western Balkans and thousands of refugees passed through in order to reach Germany and other European destinations. Refugees and migrants did not need to risk their lives by taking more dangerous routes such as the sea route between Greece and Italy. However, since late 2015, new razor wire fences were erected along borders, the Balkans route closed and the EU-Turkey ‘deal’ was announced. Refugees and migrants were forced once more to choose dangerous routes out of Greece and as a result, the number of people arriving in Patras started to increase again since March 2016.[vii] The official end of the relocation scheme in 26 September 2017[viii] further fuelled irregular migration.
Patras is advertised as “gateway to Europe” for the tourists and transport businesses by the Port Authority (OLPA SA) with passenger and cargo ships departing and arriving daily to and from Italy[ix], but at the same time it is a strictly guarded and defended border area for others. Security measures got stricter in Patras since the beginning of the operations of the new port and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS)[x] got implemented from the very start. These measures became more severe with the introduction of tighter border controls inside the EU Schengen Area during the refugee crisis[xi]. The tightening of these controls was also justified on a political level as a necessary security measure in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and other European cities.[xii]
The port is patrolled and controlled by Greek coastguard and a private security company.[xiii] Tasked with the “prevention” of irregular migration amongst others, the security staff’s mere presence at points of access and control and also in the broader port area is aimed to function as a deterrent to ‘irregular migration’. Security staff is meant to be supervised by coastguard present at the port. According to an official answer of the Patras Port Authority to RSA (11 May 2018)[xiv] the security staff is “not carrying any weapons.”
Meanwhile, incidents of violence against refugees and migrants by law-enforcement officials and other actors operating in the port area of Patras are reported by the refugees and solidarity people to happen on a daily basis.
“Over the past four weeks, we’ve treated over fifty patients who have been reportedly attacked by police, coast guard, truck drivers or the private security service staff. Among the injured are young adults as well as some minors. The injuries were mostly lacerations, bruises and haematoma. We also treated several dog bites and fractures. Several patients could not be treated on the spot, but had to be transferred for further treatment to the hospital.”
Docmobile, a medical volunteer group that started providing assistance to refugees and migrants in Patras a year ago
Local solidarity group “The Movement for the Defence of Refugee and Migrants Rights in Patras” – created in 2007 – has been denouncing the ill-treatment of refugees and migrants in the city over the years. With their recent press release concerning the reported ill-treatment of the 14-year-old Afghan boy, they found themselves suddenly under attack by the local union of coast guard officers.
“We brought the incident to publicity and an internal investigation was ordered. The Union of Port Police reacted later with a demand letter against our Solidarity Group, requiring us not to talk again! In recent months, both the crackdown on refugees in the harbour area and the reactionary voices calling for their removal from the area around the port have intensified. (…) The responsibilities of the government are enormous; in the criminal EU-Turkey Agreement and due to the overall repressive migration policies, the persecuted are trapped in Greece, with extremely difficult and time-consuming access to asylum and family reunification procedures. In our city – and despite the support of the Municipality to the refugee population – a hostile climate towards the refugees is being created on the pretext of the proper functioning of the harbour. And the government rushes with the voice of Migration Minister Vitsas to “reassure” that the informal places of shelter of the refugees will be evacuated “deliberately and peacefully” by transferring them to the organized camps of uncertainty and despair (…).”
The Movement for the Defence of Refugee and Migrants Rights in Patras[xv]
During the two-day research mission, RSA staff met local activists and interviewed several refugees living temporarily in Patras. Αt the time of RSA’s visit, about 300 to 500 refugees and migrants were living in the abandoned factories of AVEX and Ladopoulos near the new port. RSA interviewed 21 refugees and migrants. All of them said that they had been ill-treated inside or just outside Patras port between January and March 2018. They said that the ill-treatment they experienced was mainly by coast guard officers or staff of a private security company operating inside the Patras port area (under the control and coordination of the national authorities) and/or what they described as ship security staff (such staff operates in ships under the command of the captain). RSA’s researchers have seen injuries of the alleged victims, have taken photos of some of them and they were shown evidence of injuries[xvi] where the wounds had already healed.
Nineteen of the above mentioned alleged victims were Afghans, one was from Pakistan and another from Iran. The interviewees said that they had arrived only recently in Patras (maximum three months before the RSA mission). Half of them had been living for less than six months in Greece and the other half between six months and two years. The vast majority had entered the country through Evros River at the land border. The ones apprehended in Evros or Rhodopi prefectures had been in administrative detention between 4-6 months and applied for asylum during that time. The others had been arrested and released with a deportation order valid for 30 days or reached Patras without papers without being arrested at all. All the interviewees were either holders of asylum applicants’ cards or they complained that they had tried multiple times to apply for asylum application before the Greek Asylum Service, but did not succeed in having their claims registered by the competent authorities. In particular, they said that they did not manage to book an asylum registration appointment via Skype and that they had to stay homeless for long periods.[xvii] All of them complained about the lack of reception conditions, lack of effective protection and any future prospects in Greece. In Patras, they had been living in abandoned factories under deplorable conditions.
“I have been in Greece for the past 5-6 months. It has been two weeks since I arrived in Patras. I tried to register in a camp in Athens. I went to Elaionas. They said it was only for families. I slept for more than a week in parks because I had no more money.”
Morteza*, a 19-year-old refugee from Afghanistan[xviii]
“I have in Greece with my father for the past five months. The rest of our family had to stay in Afghanistan. We applied for asylum in Athens. We searched for a place to stay. We couldn’t find a house or a place in a camp. We wrote our names on a waiting list in Elaionas camp. We applied for housing in Piraeus Asylum Service. We were forced to come here. It has been now three months since we arrived in Patras. I got beaten a lot here.”
Hassan*, a 12-year old boy from Afghanistan accompanied by his father
The interviewees complained that they had been ill-treated multiple times inside or outside the new Patras port by coast guard officers, “commandos” (they refer to one of coastguard’s special operations teams), police or/and private security staff of the port or/and what they described as ship security staff. Two of them complained also, that they had been beaten by truck drivers. Moreover, they stated that they were punched and kicked and suffered beatings with batons, metal and wooden sticks (as well as in one case with plastic tubes and in another case a metal chain) all over their body and mainly on the head. Those alleging ill-treatment by private security staff also complained about being shocked with ‘electroshock weapons’. In one case, a refugee was allegedly threatened by a man described as a “commando” holding a gun and ordering him to get out of the port. In another incident, a dog reportedly held by private security staff was unleashed so it would deliberately bite a child refugee trying to board a truck for Italy. Refugees and migrants were allegedly maltreated after their detection inside/or outside the port or while trying to get in/out of the port. All of them told us that the violence was unjustified. They were ill-treated while they were not resisting a possible control or apprehension and even when lying on the ground. Migrants have been allegedly chased by police cars and/or motors outside the port. The interviewees with one exception, were all left to leave the port immediately after they were ill-treated. The port authorities did not arrest the migrants or file any administrative or criminal complaint against them. In all cases, the perpetrators allegedly ill-treated the interviewed refugees by inflicting physical injury and/or psychological trauma on them.
The scale of allegations concerning ill-treatment by both law enforcement officials and private security staff indicates a widespread pattern of violence rather than a few isolated incidents. This pattern also suggests that ill-treatment is used as a deterrence tool both by law enforcement officials and private security staff in order to discourage refugees and migrants from arriving to Patras port and trying to reach other EU countries through this “gate”. The majority of the interviewees did not want to file a complaint about their ill-treatment because they felt scared of the authorities. Those without papers feared apprehension, while others expressed fear of being targeted and / or no faith in the criminal justice system.
“I got beaten 4-5 times. I don’t want to remember that. One month ago, the port police beat me with punches, using batons, they kicked me, and they threw a baton at me that hit me on my head. They hit me on the liver. I was in between the fences of the port trying to escape. There were two officers in black uniforms inside the port and two outside. They were beating me without looking where they would hit me. They just beat without thinking.”
Ghulam*, a 20-year-old refugee from Afghanistan
“On 27 March 2018 – between 10:30 and 11pm – half of us were inside the port and half were outside. There was a “commando” who was new. We had not seen him before. He was standing near the parking area. He suddenly pulled out his gun. It was small and black. He walked fast and with strong steps towards us and shouted ‘fyge, fyge’ [Greek: ‘go away’]. He came 10-15 metres near us. I thought he would shoot. There were four police officers in black watching the incident. I think he was drunk. I got very scared.”
Farid*, a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan
“We get beaten every day here. The police, the port police, the ‘commandos’, the officers in civil clothes, the security, port staff and truck drivers. They all beat us. They try to do it without being seen. When we try to board a cargo ship there are no tourists, so they can do what they want. If there is a tourist ferry, they try to beat us in a place where someone cannot see them. Like inside a truck, behind a truck, or inside the police station. Two weeks ago. I was under a truck. I was hiding between the wheels. It was just me. Four police officers came. They surrounded the truck. I heard them shouting: ‘Come out motherfucker’. I had no choice. I crawled to get out. The one closer to me grabbed my clothing. He pulled me out. I was lying on the floor. All four of them were holding plastic pipes. All of them beat me on my head, back, legs, hands. It lasted for five minutes. At some point, I managed to stand up and run. If I had not escaped in the end, they would have killed me. In the factory, I just took pain-killers from the doctors. The pain lasted for 4 to 5 days.”
Issah*, a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan
“It was 24 o’clock on Saturday night (24 March 2018) and it was raining. I was wearing my hoody. I was returning from inside the port back towards the factory. Near the customs the ‘commandos’ caught me. There were two persons inside a silver car. They were wearing camouflage trousers like those worn by the military. The car was approaching me from the back. I heard a noise and turned around and saw them. Then I started running. Suddenly, near the parking, I was hit by a stick on the back of my head, which they threw at me. I collapsed and lost consciousness. When I woke up I was still lying where I had collapsed and my head was bleeding. I went to the police inside the port and asked them for a bandage. They gave it to me and told me to go. It was the first time they beat me. I feel intense pain until now. What kind of person is that who would hit someone treacherous from the back without any reason.”
Sediq*, a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan
It was on Saturday night (24 March 20118) at 11:50 pm. (…) We were about to climb inside a truck. A car of the security staff came near. One security guard had a dog. He released the dog and sent it after me. The security men were wearing green and black clothes. The dog run towards me and I tried to escape. It bit my leg and didn’t let go. The security employee who was holding it came and pulled the dog away from me. I tried to run. He was holding the dog and running after me. I ran towards the port police and told that I had been bitten by a dog. The officer took a club and wanted to beat me. (…) I tried to run. I couldn’t climb the fence (surrounding the port) so I had to get out through the normal gate. A police car started chasing me. I ran towards the factory. Some other refugees told to police officers outside the port that I had been bitten by a dog. (…) I was bleeding. (…) The next morning I went to the hospital with my father”.
Hassan*, a 12-year-old boy from Afghanistan accompanied by his father
Seventeen of the interviewees told RSA, that they were victims of a large-scale incident of maltreatment by private security staff working in the port and what they described as ship security staff. The incident took place between the late evening of Saturday, 24 March 2018, and the early hours of the next day (Sunday, 25 March 2018). According to the testimonies received, the private security staff working at the port and security staff working in a ship spotted the refugees and migrants interviewed hiding in different trucks inside the port and then started to beat them inside and/or outside of the trucks. They interviewees said that they were ill-treated, while they were sitting or lying on the floor and that they were not trying to flee or resist arrest. All of the interviewees had been allegedly beaten with truncheons all over their body, including beatings on the head and ten of them had been allegedly shocked with a type of electroshock weapon. After they were beaten and electroshocked, they were left to leave the port area. Fractures in arms and legs and wounds on their heads had to be reportedly treated by doctors and signs of their injuries were still visible during RSA’s visit. At least 10 of them told us that they got transferred to the hospital because of the ill-treatment they suffered. Furthermore, they stated that the coast guard and police authorities did not take any measure to prevent or to stop their ill-treatment by private security staff or employees of the ship. The interviewees complained that officers saw refugees who were badly treated but did not do anything to protect them. Almost half of them said that they had been also subjected to ill-treatment by coast guards in other incidents of violence.
“We were 12 persons in a truck and four persons found and beat us. Two of them wore green vests and two were in civilian clothes. They hit me everywhere. They didn’t care which part of my body it was. They hit me also when I fell down. They hit me on the chest and I could not breath. I didn’t go to the hospital because I am scared of the police.”
Babul*, a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan
“In the late night of Saturday (24/25.3.18) at 12pm I was hiding inside a truck that was inside the port. We were two persons. The truck got stopped near the boat. The door was opened. There were four persons from security. One of them entered the truck. The truck was full of cartons. The security guy found me first. He hit me inside the truck. He was hitting my head many times. I told them I am a sick person. He hit me again. I felt very dizzy. I fell down. He hit me again. (…) He was holding a black weapon. It had two small points on the front side. He delivered electric shocks on my hands many times. My whole body felt the electricity. I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t see anymore. Then he pulled me out. I fell on the street. (…) I tried to stand up and get myself out of the port. I noticed a port police car passing by. They saw me on the ground, but they didn’t come to help. They just left. Then I fainted. Somebody brought me out of the port and to the factory. I didn’t go to the hospital that night, but next morning. They had to stitch up the wounds on my head. I was bleeding a lot. I still feel dizzy three days after the beating and I have pain in my head. I have been in Patras for a month and it was the first time I entered the port. I am very tired now. That night, the security staff said many bad words. They said: “Fuck you Afghan” and showed me the middle finger”.
Ali*, a 40-year old asylum seeker from Afghanistan
“We were six persons in the truck. Two private security guards came. They were dressed in blue. They hit me with electricity and I fell in the sea. My friend pulled me out.”
Aref*, a 27-year-old refugee from Afghanistan
“On Saturday 24 March at 11pm, I was inside a truck with five others. We had been hiding there already for two hours. The truck engine had started and stopped in front of the ship. The door was opened. One security man entered. He had a torch and searched. He was wearing green and black clothes. In his one hand, there was a big wood. A second security man entered who was holding an electro shock device weapon. They closed the door behind them. They did that so nobody would see what would happen. (…) They pulled us out of our places and while one was beating us with the wood, the other was giving us electric shocks. The one with the wood was only beating us on the head. Three of us had lacerations on the head. The electro shock weapon they used on our necks, hips and legs, so we could not move. One of us was bleeding a lot from the head. Then they threw us out the truck. The one who was bleeding was taken away to the police station. When the one security gave me an electric shock I felt strong pain. (…) My hand and my arm are still in pain. I have been for five months in Greece and for two months in Patras. I had nowhere to stay. I have been beaten more than 10 times since I arrived here. Port officers and security staff beat me. They say so many bad words, that they make our hearts hurt.”
Ibrahim*, a 23-year-old refugee from Afghanistan
“I was hiding alone inside a truck on Sunday morning. The car stopped in front of a ship. Two security guards entered the truck. One of them was holding an electro shock weapon. He hit me in the temple 3-4 times with electricity. At the same time, the other one was beating me with a metal on the back of my head. I kneeled over because of the pain. The one with the electro shock weapon was holding me from the neck and pressing me down. The metal hit my head two times. I started bleeding. I saw later two more security guards standing outside. I got pushed out of the truck and fell one metre. I hurt my knees. My clothes got wet as I fell into a small puddle. The security staff was wearing green/yellow vests. I felt very dizzy. The electric shock to my temple made me feel high pressure in my head. The electro shock weapon was black and looked like a torch. They let me go and I walked back to the factory. The next day I went by myself to the hospital.”
Navid*, a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan describing maltreatment by private security staff on the night of 24 to 25 of March 2018
To the Greek and European authorities:
RSA is highly concerned about the alleged incidents and condemns the unjustified and widespread violence and ill-treatment against refugees and migrants in the port area of Patras by law enforcement officers as well as by private security staff operating in the port area.
RSA stresses that torture and other forms of ill-treatment as well as excessive use of force shall never be justified or tolerated as deterrence measure or in the name of “combating irregular migration”.
RSA calls on the Greek authorities to ensure respect of human rights of refugees and migrants in the port area of Patras as well as coordinate, monitor and control the security measures implemented in the port by both public and private actors under Greek, European and international law. The alleged widespread use of electroshock weapons against migrants by staff of private security companies in the port must be investigated a by the competent authorities.
RSA calls on the competent authorities to ensure thorough and impartial investigations into reports of such incidents of ill-treatment.
To the civil society:
RSA reminds our civil society that tolerance of ill-treatment of refugees and migrants as a mean of deterring irregular migration does not only violate the principles of a democratic society but also inevitably leads to an increase in and naturalisation of racism and xenophobia.
RSA calls on the civil society – all travellers, tourists, local residents and business people, as well as truck drivers and other professionals connected to the port of Patras – to alert the authorities if such incidents come to their attention.
[i] Source: https://www.facebook.com/notes/κίνηση-υπεράσπισης-δικαιωμάτων-προσφύγων-και-μεταναστώνστριών/532018-δελτιο-τυπου-τραυματισμός-ανηλίκου-από-λιμενικούς/1723263634379380/ (last visited on 11 May 2018)
[ii] Source: https://www.facebook.com/notes/κίνηση-υπεράσπισης-δικαιωμάτων-προσφύγων-και-μεταναστώνστριών/532018-δελτιο-τυπου-τραυματισμός-ανηλίκου-από-λιμενικούς/1723263634379380/ (last visited May 1, 2018)
[iii] Since 2016, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) is the implementing partner of PRO ASYL in Greece.
[iv] The new Patras port started operating in 2011. Until then, the ferries travelling from and to Italy had been landing in the old port, which is located in the city centre.
[v] Research was conducted and the report written by the PRO ASYL funded project RSPA and its staff.
[vi] Source: https://www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/PRO_ASYL_Report_I_came_here_for_peace_Patras_June_2012.pdf (last visited on May 11, 2018)
[vii] Ιn 2017, the number of persons apprehended for “irregular stay ” by Patras police increased to 2,665 compared to 950 in the year before. Only in January 2018, police apprehended 439 persons (compared to 213 in January 2017). At the same time, the local solidarity group and volunteer group Foodkind estimate that the current transit population has e reached 300-500 persons. Foodkind has been providing meals to refugees and migrants living in the temporary camps near the port since February 2017.
Sources: http://www.thebest.gr/news/index/viewStory/477193 (last visited on March 30, 2018)
https://www.facebook.com/foodKIND/ (last visited on 11 May 2018)
[viii] Source: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-2104_en.htm (last visited on May 12, 2018)
[ix] Brindisi, Ancona, Venice, Bari, Genova, Ravenna, Trieste and Catania.
[x] The ISPS Code a regulation which grew out of anti-terror policies following the September 11 attack on the twin towers in New York.
[xii] Source: https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/leak-temporary-internal-schengen-border-checks-could-last-four-years/ (last visited on May 12, 2018)
[xiii] Patras Port Authority (OLPA SA) entrusted a private security company with the task of port security based on the Laws of Regulation 2004/725 / EC and the Directive 2005/65 / EC.
Source: Written response to RSA by the Patras Port Authority (11 May 2018).
[xiv] Written response to RSA by the Patras Port Authority (11 May 2018).
[xv] Interviewed on 27 March 2018 in Patras.
[xvi] Such as photos or medical certificates.
[xvii] The impediments of accessing to the Asylum Service through Skype as well as delays in the asylum procedure in Greece have been reported many times.
Sources: http://www.asylumineurope.org/sites/default/files/report-download/aida_gr_2017update.pdf (last visited on May 10, 2018)
http://www.news247.gr/koinonia/megales-kathysterhseis-sto-asylo-kai-anhlikoi-ektos-domwn.6596865.html (last visited on May 10, 2018)
http://www.zougla.gr/greece/article/elikse-i-episxesi-ergasias-ton-simvasiouxon-stin-ipiresia-asilou (last visited on May 10, 2018)
AIDA 2017: Country Report: Greece.
https://www.efsyn.gr/arthro/epishesi-ergasias-apo-symvasioyhoys-stin-ypiresia-asyloy (last visited on May 10, 2018)
http://m.dw.com/en/as-eu-looks-away-greece-looks-for-places-to-house-refugees/a-43256983 (last visited on May 10, 2018)
[xviii] All names have been anonymised for the protection of the interviewees and upon their request.
Title photo ©Giorgos Moutafis