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Dispatches: Greece – Two Years of Abusive Police Sweeps
August 4, 2014

Today marks two years of abuses conducted by the Greek police against migrants and asylum seekers in Athens under the Xenios Zeus operation, ironically named after the ancient Greek god of hospitality.

On the streets of Greece’s capital, abusive police stops and searches are a daily reality. Police have detained tens of thousands of people presumed to be irregular migrants. People who appear to be foreigners are subject to routine stops, unjustified searches of their belongings, insults, and, in some cases, physical abuse.

Even when these individuals have identity documents proving they have a legal right to be in Greece, that doesn’t always stop police transferring them to a police station where they can be held for hours pending “verification” of their status. Human Rights Watch documented these violations in the June 2013 report "Unwelcome Guests".

Part of the problem is that under Greek law, police have broad powers to stop people and require them to provide proof of their identity without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. There are no legal safeguards or guidance governing identity checks for immigration control, and officers are not trained on immigration and asylum issues.

In a damning December 2013 report, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency said that “while immigration checks need to be conducted, the efficiency and effectiveness of the way operation Xenios Zeus is carried out is questionable.” The Greek Ombudsman criticized the operation in September 2013, saying it was disproportionate and discriminatory. 

Despite the adoption of a law last March making it easier for people to complain about law enforcement misconduct and adding racist and discriminatory behaviour based on ethnic origin or religion as grounds for a complaint against the police, police conduct during these stops continue to leave a lot to be desired.  

The Greek government has failed to revise the general stop and search powers nor has it adopted the legal and policy reforms needed to ensure that police operations are conducted in full compliance with national and international law prohibiting discrimination, including discriminatory ethnic profiling, ill-treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Police officers conducting immigration stops need appropriate training, equipment, and guidance on how to conduct immigration stops without abusing people’s rights.

Instead, on July 16, the government launched a fresh large-scale police operation called Operation Theseus, ostensibly aimed at curbing the use of drugs, sex work, as well irregular immigration in the center of Athens. The credible reports of abusive police stops emerging from this operation should surprise no one.

Greece has a right to control irregular immigration and a duty to improve security on the streets for everyone. But until the government effectively regulates police stop powers, the high price paid by vulnerable groups in Athens will remain.