ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of migrants detained in Greece for lacking the correct paperwork, including some asylum seekers and teenagers, are held in often appalling conditions without access to basic hygiene and regular medical care, according to a medical aid group which accused the Greek state of causing "unnecessary suffering and harm."
In a report released Tuesday, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, expressed "grave concerns" and urged Greece to "put an end to the systematic and indiscriminate use of detention" for migrants found in the country without the correct documentation — many often picked up during random checks after living in Greece for years.
Respiratory and skin diseases abound, exacerbated by unsanitary, crowded conditions, the group said, and detainees were displaying increased mental health problems including suicide attempts or extreme forms of protest such as sewing up their mouths.
The pre-deportation detention centers are run by police. Officials at police headquarters in Athens said they do not comment on aid group reports. However, a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, rejected the MSF descriptions.
The official said Greek authorities respect the human rights and dignity of all those they detain, and that conditions meet European norms. He said the length of detention, which can reach 18 months, was also in accordance with Greek and European law.
But MSF pained a different picture. In one center, dozens of migrants are locked in cells without access to toilets for 22 hours a day, allowed out only for an hour in the morning and another in the evening, said Ioanna Kotsioni, who handles migration issues for MSF. If they need to use the bathroom during the day, they either have to attract the attention of a guard to allow them out of their cell, or use a plastic bottle.
Throughout the system, migrant detainees lacked access to basic items such as clothing, clean bedding and personal hygiene items such as soap, toothpaste and detergent, MSF said.
"The consequences on these people's health are very serious," Kotsioni told the AP.
"What we are asking is for this generalized, systematic detention to stop, as well as for an end to the detention of people in inappropriate facilities."
Greece is one of the main entry points for migrants trying to gain access into the European Union. Tens of thousands make the perilous journey each year, either attempting to cross over land from Turkey, or heading to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast, often in rickety boats that break down or sink.
On Tuesday alone, hundreds of migrants arrived on Greek shores. A commercial tanker which had rescued 345 after they issued a mayday call arrived in the southern island of Crete, where two were taken to hospital for precautionary reasons, the Coast Guard said.
Separately, coast guard officials rescued 41 migrants from a half-sunken boat near the island of Lesvos, while another 37 were found on Chios island after arriving on an inflatable speedboat. All were detained.
In mid-2012, the government launched a crackdown on illegal migration, nicknamed Operation Xenios Zeus. Tens of thousands of migrants were rounded up from city streets for identity checks. Those found without residents permits or refugee papers were sent to detention centers pending deportation.
More than 6,000 people are held in those centers, MSF said. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more are held in police holding cells where conditions are even worse as detainees have no access to the outdoors, and often have no fresh air or natural light. Although the holding cells are not equipped to house people for more than two or three days at a time, Kotsioni said MSF has encountered migrants who have been held for up to 17 months.
Follow Elena Becatoros on Twitter on https://twitter.com/ElenaBec