February 14, 2015 / 4:18 PM / 3 years ago

Greece pledges to shut immigrant detention centers

Immigrants stand behind a fence at a detention centre in the Amygdaleza suburb of western Athens February 14, 2015. REUTERS/ Alkis Konstantinidis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s new left-wing government pledged on Saturday to close down detention centers for illegal immigrants that have long been criticized by rights groups as inhumane.

A Pakistani man had died overnight at the Amygdaleza detention center in western Athens in a suspected suicide.

“Detention centers - we’re finished with them,” Deputy Interior Minister Yannis Panousis, who is in charge of public order and civil protection, told reporters on Saturday when he visited the center.

“I‘m here to express my shame, not as a minister but as a human being,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. I really could not believe it. This must change and it must change immediately.”

The United Nations has accused Greece of holding migrants in shocking conditions without heating or hot water. Panousis said the government would set up “open” reception centers with better facilities.

Greece is the route of choice into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of mainly Asian and African migrants every year. Rising anti-foreigner sentiment during Greece’s economic crisis made immigration a hot political issue.

The former conservative-led government of Antonis Samaras launched a sweep operation in 2012 called “Xenios Zeus”, after the ancient Greek god of guests and travelers, arresting thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Amygdaleza was Greece’s first dedicated detention center for illegal migrants, and consists of dozens of containers that were originally set up to house people displaced by natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Writing by Karolina Tagaris Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Kevin Liffey

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