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Asylum seekers 'abused' in Greece

With pressure building on the Greek government over the alleged violent abuse of asylum seekers, the BBC's Paul Henley speaks to a man who says he experienced the brutality at first hand.

Dormitory at Camp Samos, camp was closed last year. Pic courtesy: ProAsyl
Asylum seekers are kept in cramped conditions, as in other countries

Allegations that Greek police are abusing, threatening and torturing asylum seekers are clearly taken very seriously in Athens.

The man responsible for the treatment of immigrants is well-briefed with specific details to refute claims of mistreatment. Spokesman for the Public Order Department of the Interior Ministry, Athanasios Andreolakos, offers the BBC more than an hour of his time and is eager to defend his country's international reputation.

He denies any mistreatment took place - "there is simply no evidence to support this, the allegations are provocative to Greece". Then he admits that "no system can be perfect".

"Any allegations we will certainly pursue, we have zero tolerance for any abuses of this sort."

The allegations themselves are certainly serious.

The Norwegian government is concerned enough by them to have stopped exercising its right to return illegal immigrants to Greece, if that was the European country they first arrived in.

Human rights groups all over Europe are campaigning for other countries to take the same action, claiming that lives are being put at risk.

In Oslo, I met one man who said his journey to asylum in Europe very nearly proved fatal.

Police custody

Rodi Suweini is from Baghdad. A serious gunshot wound to his chest and shoulder is testament to his narrow escape from civil war in Iraq.

Rodi Suweini
They tied my hands and my ankles with a rope and pulled me up so that I was suspended from the frame of a window
Rodi Suweini, Iraqi asylum seeker

Other injuries to his face and neck are, he claims, a permanent reminder of his time in the custody of Greek police.

Having crossed the border from Turkey on foot, he was immediately captured and, he says, abused by officers who paid no heed to his claim for asylum.

"First, one of them kicked me in the stomach," he told me, "and then three of them continued beating me up.

"They hit me across the face, they put a wooden stick to my neck and started to strangle me.

"They accused me of being a people-trafficker. They tied my hands and my ankles with a rope and pulled me up so that I was suspended from the frame of a window and they left me there all day."

After a journey across Europe via Italy, Belgium and Sweden, Mr Suweini reached Norway, where the authorities granted him asylum. He told them he had spent nearly six weeks on the floor of a hall in northern Greece shared by 600 people, before being told to get out of the country for ever.

Torture

What we saw in Greece... we see in other countries we would not want to be compared to... we are talking about regimes that torture people
Berit Lindeman, Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Berit Lindeman, who works for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, was part of a team that went to Greece to investigate treatment of asylum seekers.

She was shocked by reports of mistreatment and underlined the lack of legal security for individuals trying to get into Europe.

"What we saw in Greece", she says, "is the same thing that we see in other countries we would not want to be compared to.

"We are talking about regimes that torture people. We cannot accept this in the middle of Europe."

Ms Lindeman's claims are dismissed as "gullible" by the Greek authorities. But there are many in Athens who believe them.

Spyros Rizakos is an asylum lawyer who has worked on behalf of immigrants and an author of a report on their plight.

'Sinful policy'

He thinks it a ludicrous idea that his government does not know that some migrants are being mistreated.

Graph showing rise in asylum applications made in Greece

"Of course they know," he says, "because there have been so many reports from organisations like the UNHCR, from the Greek ombudsman and from NGOs like Amnesty and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

"To ignore them is a sinful policy, something tragic. And I am doing my best to denounce it and to stop it."

What he is equally keen to denounce, however, is the impression that the problem is simply a Greek one.

"The asylum issue is a European one. As a continent, we create the idea of the so-called Fortress Europe.

"We must all bear some responsibility when it comes to violating refugees' rights", he says.

And there is no doubt that Greece - so close to the Middle East and with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of coastline impossible to patrol constantly - has to cope with more than its fair share of mass migration into Europe.

Mass emigration

But Greece's acceptance rate for asylum applications is dramatically lower than that in northern European countries.

Asylum seekers waiting in Athens
Greece's lengthy coast is a very porous border to the EU

Until relatively recently, Greece was a country of mass emigration.

It is only in the last 15 years or so that native Greeks have had to adjust to immigration on a scale long familiar in parts of Western Europe.

The transition has gone relatively smoothly in terms of public opinion.

But there has been some hostility to immigrants.

Maria Kagkelidou, a journalist for the Athens News newspaper, puts it bluntly. "Some people are inherently racist here", she says.

"Therefore, I would not say they would condone mistreatment of immigrants by the Greek police, but they would not be particularly surprised by it. And they would certainly not be up in arms about it."

Next month in the European Parliament, MEPs will be urged to join the campaign for fairer treatment of immigrants in Greece, to put pressure on their governments to follow Norway's example and stop sending asylum-seekers back to Greece, as is their right under EU legislation.

It may then become clear whether fears about human rights abuses in Greece are simply something troubling sensitive Nordic consciences, or a wider issue for Europe generally.

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