Human Rights Report: Vigilante groups terrorizing immigrants in Greece
posted on 2012-07-11
An anti-immigrant manifesto in the Aghios Panteleimonas neighborhood in Athens. © 2011 Human Rights Watch
By Kathy Tzilivakis
Immigrants in Greece are afraid to walk the streets following a rash of xenophobic violence, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, an organization that tracks human rights throughout the world.
The group’s 99-page report titled “Hate on the street” says vigilante groups of up to 20 people, often with their faces hidden and sometimes armed with clubs or beer bottles, attack migrants and asylum-seekers regularly.
It says victims have even been dragged off buses in broad daylight, beaten, stabbed, and scarred for life.
Mehdi Naderi, a 20-year-old Afghan, received stitches to his head and nose after he and two friends were attacked on a pedestrian street near Attica Square in Athens on the night of December 12, 2011. © 2011 Eva Cossé/Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch accuses the police of being ill-equipped or ill-disposed to investigate reports of racist violence. “There is no specialized, practical training at the police academies, and there are no specialized officers tasked with pursuing or overseeing investigations into possible hate crimes. While responders will provide immediate assistance – calling an ambulance, for example – Human Rights Watch heard repeatedly that police discourage victims from filing official complaints.”
Making an already bad situation worse, Greece introduced a 100-euro fee to file police complaints in 2010. Designed to discourage frivolous complaints that clog a chronically slow system of justice, the fee is also preventing migrants from filing complaints.
According to Judith Sunderland, the organization’s senior researcher who drafted the report, Greece (a country suffering a deep economic crisis and years of mismanaged immigration and asylum policies) is a “decidedly inhospitable country for many foreigners”.
“The economic crisis and migration cannot excuse Greece’s failure to tackle violence that is tearing at its social fabric,” Sunderland says.
Immigrants currently make up about 10% of Greece’s population.
While tourists are welcome, migrants and asylum-seekers face a hostile environment, where they may be subject to detention in inhuman and degrading conditions, risk destitution and xenophobic violence.
Sunderland interviewed 79 foreigners living in Greece. The majority (59) said they experienced or escaped a xenophobic incident in Greece between August 2009 and May 2012.
The victims included migrants and asylum seekers, as well as two pregnant women.
Yunus Mohammadi, the president of an association of Afghans in Greece, told Human Rights Watch the situation has gotten so bad that he has actually started showing newer arrivals a map of Athens with a red line around areas they should avoid.
“This is exactly what I used to do in Afghanistan with the Red Cross about places people shouldn’t go because of fighting,” he said. “And here I am doing the same thing in a European country.”
Based on victim testimonies, most of the attacks take place in the evening, on or near town squares. Attackers, who include women, usually work in groups and are often dressed in dark clothing with their faces obscured by cloth or helmets. Bare-fisted attacks are not uncommon, but attackers also often wield clubs or beer bottles as weapons. Most attacks are accompanied by insults and exhortations to leave Greece, and in some cases the attackers also rob the victims.
One of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch is Ali Rahimi, an Afghan asylum-seeker. He was stabbed five times outside an apartment building in the rundown Athens neighborhood of Aghios Panteleimonas last year.
Saadia, a 20-year-old Somali, was eight months pregnant when four men and one woman attacked her in the same area four months ago. According to the report, her attackers yelled insults, slapped her and kicked her to the ground. They ran away when she clutched her stomach. She thought they might not have understood she was pregnant until that point because she was wearing a loose dress. Her child was born healthy a few weeks later.
Mehdi Naderi, an undocumented Afghan migrant, is yet another victim. He was beaten by a mob with sticks and an iron bar near Attica Square in December.
Witnesses to the violence interviewed by Human Rights Watch spoke of vigilante groups throwing migrants off buses or beating them up at bus stops.
Immigrant-run businesses are also being targeted. The Afghan owner of an internet café in Athens says he has had to change his store-front window three times since 2010. In August, someone wrote “Foreigners Out” in blue letters on the store-front shutters. Aside from painting over the words to obscure the message, police took no other action.
According to Human Rights Watch the true extent of xenophobic violence in Greece is unknown because official statistics are grossly under-reported and completely unreliable.
“In the entire country, the Greek government reported just two hate crimes in 2009, and only one in 2008,” says the report.
According to local charities, however, hate crimes are a near-daily phenomenon. The local branch of Doctors without Borders says it treated some 300 victims of racist attacks last year. Praksis, a Greek NGO working with immigrants in Athens, says it helped over 200 victims in 2011.
And it’s not just in Athens. Human Rights Watch recorded incidents outside Athens – in Corinth and Patras and the island of Crete.
The ultra-nationalist (often described as neo-Nazi) Golden Dawn or Chrysi Avyi party’s seat gain in last month’s election sent shock waves through the nation's political circles. But the result should not have come as a big surprise, as it reflects the popular discourse about immigration.
Entering parliament for the first time in its 20-year history, Chrysi Avyi secured 18 seats in the 300-member parliament.
Human Rights Watch describes Chrysi Avyi as “an unabashedly neo-fascist party” with a logo that is reminiscent of the Nazi swastika.
In an interview with Human Rights Watch before last month’s election, the leader of Chrysi Avyi, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, said:
“We want Greece to belong to the Greeks. We are proud to be Greek; we want to save our national identity, our thousands-year history. If that means we are racist, then yes we are. We don’t want to share the same fate of the Native Americans. Right now, the immigrants are the cowboys and we are the Apache.”
His party has gone as far as proposing anti-personnel landmines along the Greece-Turkey border in Evros and placing Special Forces in the area with a license to shoot at will.
With the issues of illegal immigration and the reported rise in crime riding high on the agenda in the lead-up to the May and June elections, even mainstream politicians were quick to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.
Greece’s new Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is no exception. The leader of conservative New Democracy, the party that won the largest share of the vote in the June elections, campaigned in part on a pledge to reclaim Greek cities from immigrants. "Greece today has become a center for illegal immigrants,” he said in one of his pre-election speeches. “We must take back our cities, where the illegal trade in drugs, prostitution, and counterfeit goods is booming. There are many diseases and I am not only speaking about Athens, but elsewhere too.”
Even the socialist Pasok party, whose former prime minister, George Papandreou, made political history in 2005 when he extended party membership to immigrants, took a rather harsh stand on immigration. It was his government that ordered police sweep operations in Athens and other big cities.
Pasok MP and former citizen protection minister, Michalis Chrysohoidis, has repeatedly blamed immigrants for a 10% surge in muggings and robberies last year. “Greeks are a peaceful people. The main problem is the presence of thousands of people who live here illegally,” he said. “We have one of the lowest rates of criminality in Europe. What exists is petty crime, linked to foreigners.”
Last year, the former Pasok government began the construction of a highly touted eight-mile-long fence along the border with Turkey in Greece’s Evros region. They also announced a plan to build 30 new detention centers to house undocumented migrants pending deportation.
As for the fight against illegal immigration, the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers crossing over the northern Greek-Albanian border or washing up on an Aegean shore from the Turkish coast has made the fight against illegal immigration a national priority.
As recently reported in the Pappas Post, Greek officials estimate 90% of all migrants sneaking into the European Union enter from Greece. The country is sitting on the front line of the EU’s illegal-immigration problem.