Greek authorities will abandon the controversial Xenios Zeus sweep operation aimed at cracking down on irregular immigration and crime in Athens, Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Tasia Christodoulopoulou announced yesterday, a week after the new Greek government took office.
For more than two years, abusive police stops and searches have been a daily reality in the nation’s capital. 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. Human Rights Watch documented these violations in the June 2013 report, “Unwelcome Guests.”
Police in Greece have broad powers to stop people and require them to provide proof of their identity – without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. There is no guidance and no legal safeguards governing identity checks, and officers participating in these operations receive little training on human rights issues, including on immigration and asylum.
Police officers also have broad powers to take people to the police station if they don’t have proof of their identity or if officers have a vague suspicion they’re involved in a criminal act. Human Rights Watch research has shown that police use this tool systematically to detain individuals perceived as unpopular in the center of Athens, including migrants, drug users, and sex workers, without a reasonable and individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. Officers also detain people on discriminatory grounds.
Without a doubt, yesterday’s announcement is an important first step in tackling long-standing police abuses. But Greek authorities should go further and put a stop to police harassment of vulnerable groups. They should also adopt legal and policy reforms to ensure that all police stops are conducted in accordance with national and international law prohibiting discrimination, ill-treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
The real test will be to see actual improvements in practice, and a meaningful change in people’s lives.