According to media reports, the Greek government started releasing people from immigration detention centres in February, as part of a policy of more humane treatment of migrants in the country.

For most of the last decade, Greece has implemented a policy of systematically detaining refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who enter the country irregularly, garnering heavy criticism from the rights groups and the international community.

However, the new left-wing Government, which came into power in January 2015, has reportedly pledged to close down immigration detention centres and ensure detention is only used as a last resort.

«Detention centers – we’re finished with them,» the Deputy Interior Minister Yannis Panousis is quoted as saying upon visiting the notorious Amygdaleza detention centre, «I’m here to express my shame, not as a minister but as a human being….I couldn’t believe what I saw. I really could not believe it. This must change and it must change immediately.»

Civil society organisations have welcomed the developments.  “Τhe Greek Council for Refugees welcomes the actions taken by the new government to restore the rule of law. The enforcement of detention as a last resort and the use of alternative measures has been one of GCR’s long standing demands towards the authorities,” GCR Director Sandy Protogerou told the IDC. “GCR is still anticipating better access to the asylum and reception procedures for all and carefully designed measures regarding unaccompanied minors.”

According to media reports, people started to be released from the Amygdaleza detention centre following a suicide at the centre on 14 February. One report suggested that over 300 people had been released across the country by the end of the month.

“The recent shift in Greek policy is extremely welcome”, said IDC Director Grant Mitchell: “There is no evidence that detention deters irregular migration and it is in fact extremely harmful to individuals and costly to the state. There are many community-based alternatives that are being used in other countries that Greece could draw on to manage migration more humanely and effectively without resorting to detention”.

UNHCR also welcomed the new policy, which reportedly includes:

  • the immediate revocation of the Ministerial Decision allowing for the prolongation of detention beyond 18 months,
  • the immediate release and referral to accommodation facilities of vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors
  • the release of registered asylum seekers whose detention exceeds the six months, the immediate implementation of measures to substantially improve detention conditions, as well as the use of alternative measures to detention

The Greek government reportedly plans to develop open reception centres with improved facilities and other alternatives to detention in its bid to move away from a system that relies on detention as a first resort.