September 21, 2011

III. Inhuman and Degrading Detention Conditions

“I am originally from a land of war, but I never saw suffering like I see here.”
Iraqi detainee, Tychero, November 2010

Detention Conditions

In December 2010, during the RABIT deployment, Human Rights Watch visited detention centers in the Evros region of Greece. We found that the Greek authorities were holding migrants, including members of vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children, for weeks or months in conditions that amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.


According to Brigadier General Georgios Salamagkas, head of the Police Directorate of Orestiada, the Fylakio migrant detention center, located about 12 kilometers from the border in northeastern Greece, housed 450 detainees at the time of our visit,[80]while its capacity, according to the FRA, is 375.[81] The large overcrowded cells were equipped with rows of bunk beds. Unlike in other places (Tychero, Feres, and Soufli) the authorities here had separated men from single women, but unaccompanied children and unrelated adults were held together in most cells. Families were held in cells with single men. Upon our arrival, the many detainees pressed with bodies and faces against the bars, some of them shouting, eager to be "chosen" for an interview. The atmosphere was tense, occasionally breaking into shouting in protest, following a riot the previous day.

Sewage was running on the floors. According to the Greek guards, this was because the prisoners broke the toilets, while protesting against their conditions.[82] The smell was hard to bear, and Greek guards wore surgical masks when they entered the passageway between the large barred cells.

A 14-year-old Afghan boy who had been detained for 43 days at the time we interviewed him, said, “The toilet is broken. The sewage comes out. There's a very bad smell. If a person comes here, 100 percent he will get sick."[83] Another 16-year-old Afghan boy who had spent two and a half weeks detained in Fylakio at the time of our interview said, "The bed here is dirty, really dirty. On two beds four of us are sleeping… In 18 days they took us out only once."[84]

Two Eritrean boys requested to talk with us together. The 17-year-old talked about his own hardships, but also told us about some of his younger friend's problems:

There is not enough water. Sometimes we spend hours without water, and then they give us dirty water to drink. For five days I was asking to see a doctor but was not able to see one yet. Recently we had a strike here because they did not provide us with access to phones or doctors. Yesterday there were problems again, and again we went on strike. They took everyone outside and did a search on us.
This search was violent and I was hit during the search. I don't have shoes, as I lost them during the search. The guards asked us to take them off and then my shoes were gone.
I left Eritrea firstly because there is nothing to eat. Then there is also the military service. When I was interviewed, they asked me basic questions about Eritrea. A woman asked me about the currency used in Eritrea and about other languages spoken there. I knew the answers to these questions. They were sitting in a container.[85]

The “container” this boy was referring to was the Frontex office in Fylakio located in the space between the main detention building and the outer wall.

His 14-year-old friend had already spent a longer period in Fylakio:

I have been here 26 days, after I came from Turkey. For three days in the beginning I was sleeping on the floor. Now I'm sharing a bed with another five people: a Somali, a Bangladeshi, an Afghani, an Egyptian, and one other Eritrean. We use the bed in shifts, which means that some use the bed during the day and others during the night. In general, we are 83 people in a room with 30 beds.
There is no way to go out for fresh air, and it is impossible to use the toilets because they are too filthy. We don’t brush our teeth because we do not have tooth brushes. They took our belongings from us outside, and did not let us take them back until now. There is only cold water and no soap. Only recently they gave us three pieces of soap and after many days I was able to wash myself.
The worst problem is that they don't tell us how long we’ll have to stand this. Every week they say, “One more week.”[86]

While we escorted the two boys back to the cells, the younger boy told us that the authorities had taken his SIM card, which is the only place he had his family's contacts. He said that Greek police tossed it on the ground when searching him. He pointed to the courtyard and asked, "Could you possibly go look if it's still there?"

These two boys were among a total of 120 unaccompanied children there at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit.

A16-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy who had been detained in Fylakio for 17 days when we spoke with him, told us about police violence as disciplinary punishment:

One night they took me out and beat me. I don’t know why. They took us into the place where the telephones are in the small room and beat us. First they were two, then two others [joined]. It happened at night. We were four or five who were not sleeping. We made noise; we were shouting because all people became crazy and we were in bad conditions. They took us out because of that. It happened one week ago. They were many. They hit me with a stick. Three or four police officers hit me on my upper leg two or three times. [87]

Former Fylakio detainees also spoke about guard violence there. An Iranian asylum seeker in Venna detention center told us that when the Greek police caught him, along with two others, the police beat them in the courtyard after they tried to escape from Fylakio. For two or three days they could not walk.[88]

A former Fylakio detainee who was registered as a Georgian national but said he was stateless, characterized conditions inside Fylakio detention center, saying, “They are aggressive in Fylakio… the police don't look at us as humans but as animals. They don't care. They just throw the food inside [the cell] and they don't care if people kill one another over the food. Those who are stronger eat. The others don't.”[89]

As Human Rights Watch observed during its research visit, the main detention building in Fylakio is in plain view of the prefabricated container that serves as the Frontex office where nationality-determination interviews take place. People sitting in it can see the detainees being brought in and out in security vehicles. The sounds of protests, which also broke out during interviews we conducted, were audible where the Frontex office is located. [90]


Tychero is a town in the municipality of Soufli, located about two to three kilometers from the border, where migrants are held in a police station that had previously been used as a train station. During our visit the Greek police were holding migrants in two cells that were not originally designed to detain people, but looked like storage rooms. They were poorly lit, had no beds, and were overcrowded, with 130 detainees in the facility that, according to police authorities there, had a capacity for up to 48. [91]

Migrants had to sleep on pieces of cardboard or directly on the concrete floor. Greek guards confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the detainees there urinate in bottles as they do not have access to toilets. [92] Detainees showed us a corner where they urinated and one detainee showed us a small backpack that showed damage apparently caused by mice. We observed guards escorting a group of migrants from the cells to a nearby field to defecate. 

Migrants in the Tychero detention center asked the Human Rights Watch researchers that their conditions be photographed. © 2010 Human Rights Watch

An Iraqi man who had been detained for 48 days when we spoke with him described the situation at Tychero police station as follows:

I am originally from a land of war, but I never saw suffering like I see here. Unless you faint they will never let you see a doctor … There is no electricity and no water. We drink from the urinal.[93]


Feres is a town in the municipality of Alexandroupoli about three to four kilometers from the border, where migrants are held in a police station also not originally designed for detention. During our visit, the police were holding 97 detainees there, even though the police themselves said its capacity is 30. We were also told that during the summer, which is the “high season” for migration, 120 people were held there. Men and women were held together.

A 50-year-old woman from Georgia, who had been detained for 12 days and said she came to Greece for medical treatment, told us about her ordeal at Feres police station:

You cannot imagine how dirty and difficult it is for me here. It is not possible to shower. I don't know what will happen….All the men smoke inside. There are also younger women. It's not appropriate to be with these men. I don't sleep at night. I just sit on a mattress.[94]

Two 16-year-old unaccompanied boys from Iran and Iraq who had spent 50 days in detention at the time we interviewed them described conditions inside the Feres police station:

During the day I sleep. The food is bad. I bought the soap [myself]. It costs one Euro. I have no toothpaste, and no clothes to change. For seven days I have been sleeping in the toilet because there is no space.[95]

A 39-year-old man from Sudan told Human Rights Watch about police violence at the Feres police station:

Once, during the night, some of the people who were there for a long time didn't want to sleep and chanted. The police simply came and hosed everyone that was there. The water was cold, and the night was cold as well.
They counted us twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. When someone would not stand in line like they wanted, they beat him with a club. Sometimes when someone remained asleep during counting time, they also beat him.[96]

He also told us that there was a severe lack of medical care at Feres and no doctor. He said that under these conditions, the detainees had to try to help themselves:

There was one girl who had been poisoned, and we had to go back to our traditional medicine, because there was no doctor. We mixed water and salt in order to induce vomiting. [97]

A 22-year-old Iranian detainee we spoke with in Feres told us that he was fearful that the police would beat him up because he decided to talk with us. He also said that one night he had a fight with another detainee, and was therefore “punished” by the police with beatings. At the time,he said, the police decided to take out all the men in the detention facility, and beat them all.[98] A Greek police officer confirmed this in an informal conversation with Human Rights Watch. He said that the detainees fight every night and that the police enter and beat them all together.[99]

Spiridon Daskaris, the commander of the Feres detention center, spoke openly about the difficult conditions, but explained that as Greece was hit hard by the financial crisis, they simply did not have the ability to provide better standards:  

We owe money to laundry and food providers. The detainees don’t have soap now, because the supermarket that has provided this is fed up. We asked again and again. Some people buy from their own money. When we get help it is usually not from our state but from others.[100]


Soufli is a municipality in the Evros region very close to the Evros River. In our visit to the Soufli police station, we once again found an extremely overcrowded, filthy and poorly lit facility, in which men and women were not separated. One of the Greek policemen there mentioned to the Human Rights Watch interpreter that two days previously a woman was raped in a cell by another detainee.[101] Human Rights Watch inquired if Frontex knew about the allegation. We received the following answer:

Frontex had got the information from the field about a case of alleged rape around 5/6 November 2010; Frontex immediately approached the Hellenic Police and asked them for internal investigation which was agreed. Frontex received a report stating that the alleged rape case was not confirmed by the investigation.[102]

A 17-year-old unaccompanied Iraqi boy told us of his attempt to escape from the Soufli detention facility and how Greek police officers used physical violence after they caught him:

Once I tried to run away. They caught me after five minutes. They beat me after that. They beat me a lot on my neck, legs, head. They kicked me. They didn’t beat me with a baton. For four hours they tied my hands up; they tied my hands to the bars; for four hours; and they threw water on me. It was in Soufli. Then they took me to the place where the other detainees were. I was beaten for 30 minutes or one hour. Everybody beat me. I was not taken to the doctor. I was injured on my fingers, and my nail fell off [shows us]; for two weeks I couldn’t sleep because I was in such pain.[103]

As with the other police stations and detention centers, the atmosphere was tense at Soufli during our visit. When we presented ourselves for the last time before leaving, making sure that there were no detainees there who still wanted to talk with us, one person shouted: "I don't want to speak about human rights. There are no human rights here. This place is a grave!"[104]

Access to Asylum

Detainees told Human Rights Watch that it was difficult to lodge an asylum claim from the detention facilities in Evros. The difficulty in filing asylum claims should be considered in light of the abusive detention conditions. Detainees consistently expressed fears that if they requested asylum, they would remain detained in such conditions for longer periods of time and that it was impossible to receive refugee status in Greece. This deterred them from lodging asylum claims. This 17-year-old Iraqi boy’s account shows how detainees’ fears are often accompanied by a lack of basic information about what seeking asylum means and how long the process will take:[105]

One Iranian requested asylum, waited for a hundred days in detention, and was rejected. Then he sewed his mouth … That’s why I didn’t ask for asylum….I heard that those who request asylum don’t get any decision and have to wait for ten years.[106]

In Soufli an Iraqi man approached us and asked us to help him file an asylum claim. When we told the Greek policeman standing nearby that the person wished to file a claim, the police officer replied to him through us: “Tell him if he asks for asylum it will take a very long time. Until the first decision comes it takes one and half months. If it’s denied and then he wants to appeal it takes more months. And he will stay here.”[107]

In Venna, another Iranian detainee said he wanted to apply for asylum, but that “the police say that if we ask for asylum we will stay for more than six months.”[108]

The police commander in Tychero detention center confirmed that applying for asylum extends the duration of detention in inhuman and degrading conditions:

Some have applied for asylum. They have to be sent to Alexandroupolis. Most do not apply for asylum, but wait to get to Athens after they get their papers. Applying for asylum makes the detention longer. We have to examine the requests. If the requests are rejected the applicants are either readmitted or deported through their embassies.[109]


[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Georgios Salamagkas, Orestiada, December 1, 2010.

[81]  Note that this number is different from the one provided to us by Leszek Szymanski of Frontex, who indicated the capacity was 320.

[82]  Note that Manfred Nowak also reported seeing feces and urine on the floor in the living quarters during his visit in October 2010, Human Rights Council Report, March 4, 2001, p.34.

[83] Human Rights Watch Interview S-18, Fylakio, December 1, 2010. 

[84]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-19, Fylakio, December 1, 2010.

[85]  Human Rights Watch Interview I-21, Fylakio, December 1, 2010.

[86] Human Rights Watch Interview I-22, Fylakio, December 1, 2010.

[87]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-19, Fylakio, December 1, 2010. 

[88] Human Rights Watch Interview S-23, Venna, December 2, 2010.

[89]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-22, Venna, December 2, 2010.

[90] For corroboration of our findings on Fylakio, see HRC report, pg. 33. See also: FRA report, pp. 25 – 26, Human Rights Watch, Stuck in a Revolving Door, 2008,, pp. 70-71.

[91]  Human Rights Watch interview with Haralampos Vomvellis, commander in Tychero Police Detention facility, November 30, 2010.

[92]The guard’s comment was not a formal interview.  Human Rights Watch heard similar accounts of detainees having to urinate into bottles and saw bottles of urine in the cells at the Petrou Ralli detention facility during our 2008 visit, as reported in Stuck in a Revolving Door report, p. 82. The CPT made the same observation in two Greek detention centers (CPT Report to Greece, February 8, 2008, pp. 17, 18). The Greek government responded to the CPT by saying that this had “happened in the past, and only in cases of psychologically disordered detainees,” and that detainees at present have access to the toilet “24 hours a day, or whenever they ask.” (Response of the Government of Greece to the CPT Report, p. 9, para. 1.a.(6)).

[93]  Human Rights Watch Interview I-15, Tychero, November 30, 2010. For more on Tychero, see FRA report, pg. 25.

[94]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-2 Feres, November 29, 2010. 

[95] Human Rights Watch Interview S-3, Feres, November 29, 2010.

[96]  Human Rights Watch Interview I-14, Tychero, November 30, 2010.

[97]  Human Rights Watch Interview I-37, Athens, February 13, 2011.

[98]  Conversation with Human Rights Watch Interpreter G-2, Feres, November 29, 2010.

[99]  Informal conversation with police officer at Feres.

[100]  Human Rights Watch Interview with Spiridon Daskaris, Feres, November 29, 2010.For general corroboration of our findings on Feres, see HRC report, pg. 42; FRA report, pg. 25.

[101]  Informal conversation with police officer, Soufli, November 29, 2010.

[102]  Frontex letter to Human Rights Watch, March 29, 2011.

[103]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-3, Feres, November 29, 2010.

[104]  Shouted comment heard by Human Rights Watch, Soufli, November 29, 2010. For corroboration of our findings on Soufli, see HRC report, pg. 31; FRA report, pg. 27.

[105]  The Fundamental Rights Agency reports similar findings. See, p. 22: “When speaking to the migrants held in the facilities, the FRA was confronted with a generalized lack of understanding about why they were detained and for how long they remain there. This resulted in heightened stress and could contribute to the violent acts with the facilities that were reported by FRA. Such lack of information, combined with the absence of independent legal advice also explains why individuals follow alleged instructions obtained by smugglers not to apply for asylum at the border. In addition, most interlocutors stressed that those who seek asylum are likely to remain in the border detention facilities for a much longer period of time, as the police waits for a decision by the refugee commission before ordering their release.”

[106]  Human Rights Watch Interview S-3, Feres, November 29, 2010.

[107]  Informal conversation with Greek police officer, November 29, 2010.

[108]  Appendix to Human Rights Watch Interview S-22, Venna, December 2, 2010.

[109]  Human Right Watch Interview I-5, Tychero, November 29, 2010.