Roughly​ every other night for the past two months, my phone has rung at around 11 p.m. Most of the time I don’t answer, as I don’t speak any of the caller’s language and he doesn’t speak enough of mine to make the conversation worthwhile. Sometimes, in the morning, there is an answerphone message: a pause, then an Urdu-accented voice saying ‘Hello?’ two or three times before the line goes dead.

The voice belongs to J, a Pakistani man I met when I visited the Amygdaleza detention centre outside Athens late last year. ‘Detention centre’ is a euphemism: it’s a prison camp surrounded by perimeter fences topped with barbed wire and overlooked by guard towers. More than a thousand people are currently detained there. Most are men, most come from Pakistan and Bangladesh; all of them are migrants who were caught without the correct papers. Around eight thousand people are incarcerated like this in Greece, which is the first point of entry into the European Union for many refugees and undocumented migrant workers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Under international standards, detention is meant to last only for short periods while a detainee’s right to stay in a country is assessed. This is not the case in Greece. Migrants are detained arbitrarily and for indefinite periods, with little access to translators, legal advisers or medical aid. Hundreds of current detainees have been there for at least 18 months – the limit set by an EU directive – and one refugee activist I spoke to in Athens told me that as many as three hundred have been in detention for more than two years. In its 2014 World Report, Human Rights Watch noted that Greece was criticised on three separate occasions by the European Court of Human Rights for ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ of detained immigrants. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants criticised the ‘systematic and prolonged’ detention of migrants in ‘substandard’ conditions. Amygdaleza is one of the largest and most notorious detention centres: according to the newspaper To Vima, an internal police investigation alleged that a group of six or seven officers formed a ‘hit squad’ to torture detainees. In August last year, detainees rioted in protest at their conditions.

On the day of my visit, I took the bus from the centre of Athens with a Greek friend. We passed through run-down suburbs, where graffiti supporting Golden Dawn were sprayed on the walls, into the foothills of the Parnitha mountain range to the north of the city. Central Athens can be warm in December, but up there it was chilly. When we arrived at the visitors’ gate a dozen men were waiting in line, all carrying shopping bags full of biscuits, bread and toiletries. They were allowed in three at a time to deliver provisions to friends and relatives inside. One of the men in the queue, a Kurdish refugee from Syria who was there to visit his brother, told us that detainees were given one meal a day and any food brought in from outside had to be in sealed packets. We joined the queue, but at the gate were picked out by the police, who wanted to know what we were doing there. I had been given J’s name and section number and been told to say I had an urgent message from his parents. We were ushered through and driven by patrol car to the section where J was being held.

The section consisted of a series of high-fenced pens, separated by a central path. Inside the pens, each of which was no more than twenty metres across, were two or three converted shipping containers, in which the inmates – all men – lived. To Vima alleged that in the summer, the police had turned off the air-conditioning, and temperature inside the containers approached 50°C. Some of the containers had been burned during the August riots and their walls were buckled and blackened, but people still appeared to be living in them. As we passed, the inmates walked up to the fence and tried to catch our attention: ‘Deutsch? Deutsch? Where are you from?’

When we reached J’s pen, the police officer escorting us shouted his name and beckoned him towards the fence. Two men approached: J had a bushy moustache and was dressed in a green tracksuit; his companion had a blanket over his head, to protect him from the cold. J spoke enough Greek to communicate a few details: he was 28 and had arrived in Greece in 2011 by sneaking across the Evros, the river that runs along the Greek-Turkish land border. He had been selling fruit and veg at a farmers’ market in the north of the country when he was arrested in a police sweep. That was in 2012. He told us he’d been in detention for 18 months and 12 days. ‘Do something for him,’ his friend with the blanket, who spoke a little English, said. ‘He is walking around all the time, very sad. The toilets are dirty, it’s freezing inside and the food is awful.’ As he spoke, he became more agitated and the police officer, who had been hovering behind us, stepped in to cut off the conversation. ‘OK, you need to leave, now.’ I had just enough time to give J my phone number before we were rushed back to the visitors’ gate.

In the following weeks, we made a few unsuccessful attempts to talk on the phone. From what I could gather, the men in his container had smuggled in a phone but could only use it at night when the police weren’t looking. They’d also managed to scrape together some money for cheap mobile internet access, so I gave J the name of my Facebook account. This worked better: every now and then he’d send me a message in phonetic English, which I’d try to decipher: ‘5 day no food’; ‘why greece police not give stay pepar’; ‘i am lafing’; ‘i want out her from camp’.

On 14 February, the recently appointed minister for public order, Yannis Panousis, visited Amygdaleza with a press entourage in tow. The night before, a Pakistani inmate whose detention had been extended beyond 18 months had committed suicide. There had been more riots inside the prison and a protest outside. ‘I’m here to express my shame, not as a minister but as a human being,’ Panousis told journalists, reiterating Syriza’s pledge: ‘Detention centres – we’re finished with them.’ Later, he said that he aimed to shut down Amygdaleza within a hundred days, replacing it with three ‘welcoming centres’ in Athens.

Syriza’s commitment to the humane treatment of undocumented migrants seems genuine, but it will struggle to dismantle the current system. As with its attempt to change the economic consensus in the Eurozone, it is dealing with a situation that is beyond the full control of national government. In 2012, Greece came under pressure from other EU states to close its borders – Austria’s home affairs minister accused Greece of being ‘open like a barn door’ – and prevent undocumented migrants from travelling onwards to other parts of Europe. That summer, after a general election campaign in which a minister from the nominally socialist Pasok described migrants as a ‘hygiene bomb’, the leader of the right-wing New Democracy vowed to ‘take back’ Greek cities from a supposed migrant invasion, and Golden Dawn won an unprecedented number of seats, Syriza’s predecessors in government launched a violent police sweep in which sixty thousand migrants were arrested.

Building more humane and open accommodation centres is a good idea, but who will pay for them, in a country whose infrastructure has been devastated? Syriza is under pressure from activists not to delay the reforms, but its coalition partners, the Independent Greeks, are anti-immigration populists. Golden Dawn’s vote remained solid in January’s election, despite the arrest and impending trial of its leaders. Prisons are a lot harder to abolish than they are to build, and Greece is not the only country to have tried an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to unwanted migrants. One refugee activist I met in Athens showed me a map of Europe, marked with the location of every detention centre in the EU; it was a sea of colour-coded dots; a graph in one corner showed that detention has increased exponentially in the last decade. Britain has been a pioneer in this field and detains between 2000 and 3500 migrants at any one time. A new report by the Institute of Race Relations has found that the UK also has one of the highest death rates: ten people have died in immigration detention since 2010.

The week before the public order minister visited Amygdaleza, J sent me another message: ‘I’m reeliz now’. He’d been given one month to leave the country and didn’t know what to do. I doubt he had the money to return to Pakistan. Overstaying and trying to eke out a living as a street-seller in Athens was the most likely option, but he told me he was scared of being caught and spending another 18 months in prison. He asked if I knew anyone who could help him, so I gave him the numbers of a few migrant solidarity groups in Athens. We haven’t spoken since then, but every now and then a post from him crops up in my Facebook feed. He seems to like videos of wedding dances.

A few days ago, I received another phone call, this time from a UK number. ‘Hello sir,’ said the voice on the other end of the line. ‘My relative is from Pakistan and he’s in a detention centre in Athens. I heard you can help him.’

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