Arbitrary Detention on Arrival – A Critique of Migrant Incarceration on Lesvos Island

The Procedure of Arrests Upon Arrival

Since 2016, some people arriving to Lesvos have been detained immediately after they reach the island. Their detention can last for up to three months, and most people are kept for the entire period of time in the pre-removal centre inside Moria camp. The aim is to complete the asylum procedure for these detained individuals during the three months of detention, so in some cases the asylum interviews have been scheduled for two or three days after their arrival. 

The procedure is often referred to as the “pilot project”. It was implemented with the idea to detain “undesirable aliens with an economic profile” (Police Circular, June 2016). Clearly, this procedure has its foundations in the racist idea that there is a clear division between ‘legitimate refugees’ and ‘illegitimate economic migrants’ based on nationality. In 2016, only individuals from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were detained under this procedure, all of them single men. However, in 2017 the criteria for detention on arrival was extended to include single men from any nationality with an asylum acceptance rate lower than 25%. As of the time of writing, many of those detained are from sub-Saharan countries including Cameroon, Togo, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

The practice gravely affects the lives of individuals: A person finally arrives to Lesvos many months after leaving their home country, having survived the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey, which is for many individuals an incredibly traumatic experience. They believe they will now be safe – they are in Europe. However, if they meet the “criteria” for detention on arrival, it is quite likely that the Greek police will detain them, without explanation for three full months inside the prison in Moria camp. During this time they will only have restricted access to medical and legal support, and yet they may be given an interview appointment mere days after their arrest. In practice, it is uncommon for people’s asylum procedures to be completed during their detention, and so it is likely that they will eventually be released after months of arbitrary detention.

The Circular Construction of the Criteria for Arrests upon Arrival

As outlined above, the criteria for detention concerns asylum recognition rates of certain nationalities. However, since being detained is in itself, in many ways, a barrier to a successful asylum claim, there is an element of circularity to the criteria:

According to police on Lesvos, the decision on which nationalities “qualify” for detention upon arrival on the basis of low recognition rates is revised every four months to reflect the statistics of the Lesvos Regional Asylum Service. Because of the restricted access to legal and medical support from inside detention, people detained upon arrival will have more difficulty preparing well for their asylum interview. On top of this, the conditions of the interview are also worse than for those who are not detained. Detainees are brought to their interviews in handcuffs, accompanied by police officers, to a separate waiting area. It will be obvious to the interviewer and interpreter that this individual has been brought from detention. There have even been cases where people were handcuffed during their entire asylum interview. The lack of preparation, possible prejudice of the interviewer, and added discomfort during the interview, all make it more difficult for the detainee to put forward their claim.

If the asylum claim of an individual is rejected under this condition, it will also affect the recognition rate of their nationality. So it is clear how the sole fact of detention of people from certain nationalities can contribute to a lower recognition rate for that nationality in general, and the selection criteria becomes to a certain extent a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Randomness and Inconsistency in the Detention Criteria

In principle, the criteria for detention on arrival is clear and consistent, related to nationality. In practice however, the decision about who is detained from a group of newly arrived individuals seems often to be inconsistent, even arbitrary.

One example from September 2018 shows this – a boat arrived in with nine people from Ghana. Five of them were detained, and four were not. Those detained were not given any reason, either at the time or afterwards, as to why they were arrested and others not. This lack of explanation raises other problems, for example one person we spoke to described how when he arrived, ‘they arrested only the black people’. It is possible that in this case people were not being detained based on skin colour only but on the basis of their nationality, but without any explanation, people are left to find explanations for their arrest. As it stands, it remains unclear what guides decisions like in the case of the September boat. It could be down to the mood of the individual police involved, the space available in the pre-removal centre in Moria, or other small factors outside the control of those detained. 

Vulnerability and Arrest upon Arrival

Under the pilot project, people are often detained directly after arrival and the ‘vulnerability’ is assessed afterwards. The vulnerability assessment, as regarding the asylum procedure on Lesvos, is a medical screening of migrants based on a set of criteria under which certain people can be recognised ‘vulnerable’ and therefore are exempted from the fast-track border procedure implemented on the Greek hotspot islands and instead referred to the regular asylum procedure. In many cases, being found vulnerable leads to the lifting of the geographic restrictions, and being able to leave Lesvos to seek treatment and care elsewhere.

Over the last months, we have met many people who were initially detained on arrival, and then, while in detention, recognised as vulnerable. Their geographic restrictions were lifted soon after their release. As a result, they will have their asylum claims assessed under the regular procedure instead of the border procedure, and let alone the pilot project. If the aim of the pilot project and detention on arrival is to process people’s claims in three months or less, there is no justification even under its own rules for detaining people who have the right to have their claim assessed under an entirely separate procedure.

There is an enormous gap between the idea that these people do not have any claim at all in the first place, which supposedly justifies their detention, and the reality that once they are released it is recognized that even the geographic restriction to the island has to be lifted to meet their needs. While no one deserves to be detained, independently from being considered as a person with ‘strong’ or ‘weak asylum claim’ or vulnerable or not vulnerable, this highlights another inconsistency in the procedure, strongly affecting the lives of individuals.

An Example: LGBTIQ+ Migrants

The arrival to the island is an extremely difficult experience for everyone and all people should have the time and support they need to prepare properly for their asylum interviews instead of being detained. However, the cases of LGBTIQ+ people in particular highlight the cruelty of arrest upon arrival, as shown in the following example.

There is a high possibility for LGBTIQ+ people to be detained on arrival: Many countries with low asylum recognition rates are not in general safe countries for queer people (for example Pakistan, Algeria, Cameroon) and as mentioned, there is very little effort made to determine people’s particular needs or vulnerabilities before their detention.

Many LGBTIQ+ people arriving on Lesvos have been persecuted their whole lives for their sexuality, or have spent years concealing or denying this aspect of their identity. And yet they are expected to speak up about this in an interview scheduled only a few days after their arrival to the island, in a potentially unsafe environment. Misinformation (“I thought my sexuality would be printed on my ID”) and homophobia (inappropriate, invasive questions during the interview, explicitly homophobic translators, etc.) are pervasive, and provide further barriers to safety during the interview procedure. After years of feeling unsafe, at what point are LGBTIQ+ individuals detained on arrival given an adequate chance in which to explain why they escaped their home country?

One individual, in explaining his story, demonstrates how impossible this expectation is. He was imprisoned for one year in his home country, for being gay. He was finally able to flee to Iran, where he was again imprisoned for four months, after an attempt to cross the border to Turkey. Again in Turkey he spent time in prison, due to failed attempts to cross over to Europe. After all of this, he arrived on Lesvos, expecting safety and hoping for freedom. And yet, upon arrival, he was detained immediately without explanation, and kept inside the detention centre in Moria for three months. Over this period his mental wellbeing suffered immensely, and he attempted suicide twice.

It was only several weeks after his release from prison that he felt safe and able to begin to talk about his sexual orientation, and even at this point he felt deeply under threat (Moria camp is in general an unsafe environment for LGBTIQ+ refugees, not only the detention centre). Fortunately, while his interview had been scheduled during his three months detention, he was able to postpone it on the grounds of poor mental health. However, it is clear that if his interview had not been postponed, he should not have been expected to be able to talk about his sexual orientation in an environment where he felt entirely unsafe.


The procedure of detention on arrival, as described above, is entirely arbitrary and unjust and furthermore strongly affects people’s well-being and their chances to gain an asylum status. The text highlighted some of the specific forms of violence of the procedure of arrest upon arrival, including the account of a person who was especially affected by his detention, because of the particular grounds for fleeing his home country. However, having met people both on their arrival to Lesvos, and after their release from detention, we are sure that this is a procedure has a violent, long lasting effect for everyone subjected to it. 

This is reflected in some statements from people detained on arrival:

“When I arrived here, the police told me to sit and wait. I was very hungry, but I didn’t get food. Sit and wait. After a while, they took me directly to prison, took my phone away and locked me up without any explanation.”

“You are running away, you think you are safe and you end up in prison.”

“Nobody invited me. I came on my own. I will take it as it is. I was praying to be free one day. That they accept me here. If I put one foot in Cameroon, I am a dead man.”

“If I don’t stop thinking about it, I will kill myself in here.”