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(Athens) – Athens police are conducting abusive stops and searches and have detained tens of thousands of people in a crackdown on irregular migration, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 52-page report, “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” documents frequent stops of people who appear to be foreigners, unjustified searches of their belongings, insults, and, in some cases, physical abuse. Many are detained for hours in police stations pending verification of their legal status.

“It’s cruelly ironic that the authorities named the sweeps Xenios Zeus, after the ancient Greek god of hospitality,” said Eva Cossé, a Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “In fact, Operation Xenios Zeus is anything but hospitable to migrants and asylum seekers, who are regularly stopped, searched, and detained just because of the way they look.”

Between August 2012, when Operation Xenios Zeus began, and February 2013, the police forcibly took almost 85,000 foreigners to police stations to verify their immigration status. No more than 6 percent were found to be in Greece unlawfully, suggesting the police are casting an extraordinarily wide net.

The report draws on dozens of interviews with people who have been subjected to at least one stop since Operation Xenios Zeus began. Many of those interviewed had a legal right to be in Greece at the time of the stops because they are asylum seekers, legal foreign residents, or Greeks of foreign origin.

Many said they felt they were stopped because of their physical characteristics and gave disturbing accounts of clear targeting on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Tupac, a 19-year-old Guinean asylum seeker, for example, said that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers out of a bus in central Athens: “[P]olice officers came to the door and said ‘All blacks out, all blacks out.’”

While stops can involve a relatively quick check of identity papers, Human Rights Watch found that migrants and asylum seekers with a legal right to be in Greece are regularly subjected to lengthy procedures, both on the street and at police stations, that amount to unjustified deprivation of liberty. Many people are held by police officers in the street, confined in police buses, and detained in police stations and the Aliens Police Division for hours without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said.

Ali, a 33-year-old registered Afghan asylum seeker, was stopped and detained  by police officers in central Athens along with his 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “The kids said [to the police], ‘He is our father, he has a pink card [asylum seeker’s card], why did you catch him?’ They [the police] said that, ‘We will take him to Allodapon [police station], we will do the control [of the identity documents] and we will release him.’”

The police ordered Ali to send his distraught children home on their own, even though they live in Piraeus, outside Athens. But he chose to keep them with him throughout the procedure, though they were kept separately from him and about 45 other people the police had rounded up. Ali was released five hours later, only after a Greek nongovernmental organization intervened on his behalf.

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. Identity checks for immigration control, such as those conducted on a massive scale during the ongoing Operation Xenios Zeus, are not prescribed explicitly in law.

The lack of training in immigration and asylum issues, and of specific guidance for officers participating in the operation, leaves too much room for abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

The Greek authorities told Human Rights Watch that bringing foreigners to the police station is necessary to identify forged documents and to verify photocopies of documents. However, authorities have taken no steps to put in place the training and technical means to enable police to verify the documents on the street.

“Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste,” Cossé said. “If the authorities are serious about improving security on the streets of Athens and controlling irregular immigration, they should focus on real criminals and base police operations on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes.”

Police mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers is a longstanding, serious problem in Greece, as documented by Human Rights Watch and others. Almost everyone interviewed complained of rude, insulting, and threatening behavior, and four people described physical abuse.

Body pat-downs and bag searches during immigration stops also appear to be routine, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the individual is carrying unlawful or dangerous objects.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has become the major gateway into the European Union for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. Years of mismanaged migration and asylum policies and, more recently, the deep economic crisis, have changed the demographics of the capital city. The center of Athens, in particular, has a large population of foreigners living in extreme poverty, occupying abandoned buildings, town squares, and parks. Concerns about rising crime and urban degradation have become a dominant feature of everyday conversations as well as political discourse.

Greece has a right to control irregular immigration and a duty to improve security on the streets for everyone. However, the breadth and intensity of immigration sweeps in the context of Operation Xenios Zeus raise serious concerns about whether the means to achieve those legitimate aims are necessary and proportionate, Human Rights Watch said.

International and Greek law prohibit discrimination, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, unjustified interference with the right to privacy, and violations of dignity and the right to physical integrity. International and national standards also require respectful treatment by the police.

The Greek government should revise its general stop and search powers, including for Operation Xenios Zeus, Human Rights Watch said. The government should adopt legal and policy reforms to ensure that all measures to identify irregular migrants are conducted in full compliance with national and international law prohibiting discrimination, including ending ethnic profiling, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“No one should be held by the police, even for a short time, without good reason,” Cossé said. “Greece’s struggle to manage immigration is no excuse for violating people’s rights.”

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