Going by the nickname ‘Bill’, Bilal Khan is the latest victim of stop and search, a police operation known first hand by thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers who live in Greece.
In his early 40s, Bilal is a registered Afghan asylum seeker who lives in Athens with his wife and three children. Like many other Afghans, Bilal fled his native country to seek refuge in Greece.
For decades Afghans suffered persecution in their own country, often getting caught up in crossfire between the Taliban and state security forces.
In Greece however, his adopted home, Bilal has yet to be granted asylum status. Going back to Afghanistan is not an option. Getting an asylum status has become a long winded waiting game often punctuated by despair and uncertainty. In the meantime Bilal has no choice but to endure long periods of ill-treatment in the face of Greek law enforcement agencies.
In recent weeks Bilal got stopped and detained by police officers in central Athens who were checking his immigration status. He was released from detention eight hours later.
Like Bilal, hundreds of immigrants in Athens go through stop and searches every day. They are routinely stopped and detained for long hours and sometimes for days. Often the treatment is harsh and unfair; bordering on abuse.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch condemns the inhuman treatment of immigrants by the Greek authorities.
The rights organisation says Athens police from time to time carry out ‘abusive stops and searches’ in which tens of thousands of immigrants are detained in crackdowns targeted at foreigners.
The Human Rights Watch report titled “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” chronicles frequent ‘stops and searches’ of people who appear to be foreigners, searches of their belongings, insults, and, in some cases, physical abuse. The report says many are detained for hours till their legal statuses are verified.
“It’s cruelly ironic that the authorities named the sweeps Xenios Zeus, after the ancient Greek god of hospitality,” said Eva Cossé, a Greek specialist at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
Ms Cossé says Operation Xenios Zeus is far from being hospitable to migrants and asylum seekers who routinely endure stops and detentions because of their appearance.
According to the report about 85,000 foreigners were detained by police between August 2012 and February 2013. During this period only 6 percent of detainees were illegals.
Many people feel they get stopped by police because they look different. In all accounts they are targeted on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
Speaking to Human Rights Watch, Tupac, 19, an asylum seeker from Guinea claims that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers out of a bus in central Athens.
He said: “Police officers came to the door and said ‘All blacks out, all blacks out.’”
According to Human Rights Watch; “Migrants and asylum seekers with a legal right to be in Greece are regularly subjected to lengthy procedures, both on the streets and at police stations, that amount to unjustified deprivation of liberty.”
In most cases individuals are stopped in the street, detained in police buses and police stations for hours for no criminal reason.
Human Rights Watch acknowledges that under Greek law police have powers to stop people and require them to provide proof of their identity without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. However, identity checks for immigration control such as those conducted on a massive scale during the on-going Operation Xenios Zeus, are not prescribed explicitly in law.
The rights group laments the lack of training in immigration and asylum issues. “There is clear absence of specific guidance for officers participating in the operation a situation which leaves too much room for abuse”, Human Rights Watch says.
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.
Cossé said: “Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste.
“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;” she added.
Human Rights Watch observes that 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”, says the rights group.
Central Athens is today characterised by foreigners living in extreme poverty, occupying abandoned buildings, town squares, and parks.
International and Greek law is against discrimination, unjustified interference with the right to privacy, and violations of dignity and the right to physical integrity. The law stipulates that all human beings should be treated with dignity and that their rights should be protected at all times.
“No one should be held by the police, even for a short time, without good reason,” Cossé said.
She added: “Greece’s struggle to manage immigration is no excuse for violating people’s rights.”
Bilal may as well one day become a Greek citizen. However his new status may not exempt him from indiscriminate stops, searches and detentions.
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