By Harry van Versendaal
Racially motivated attacks have risen in number as well as intensity in Greece as authorities’ efforts to tackle the problem remain halfhearted, a network of human rights organizations has warned.
Greece, a main transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to set foot in the European Union, has seen a growing wave of xenophobia prompted by a mix of economic malaise and political disillusionment. Golden Dawn, a neofascist party that wants to kick foreigners out of the country, currently controls 18 seats in the 300-member House while polling around 11 percent in recent surveys.
A total of 154 racist attacks were recorded in 2012 by the Racist Violence Recording Network, a collection of 30 nongovernmental organizations initiated two years ago by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) that presented its 2012 report yesterday in Athens. But the actual number is believed to be a lot higher as victims are either too scared to report incidents to the police or because they are turned away.
“What we are faced with is murderous, racist violence. Its objective is no longer just to intimidate, but to cause victims,” NCHR president Kostis Papaioannou told the press briefing.
“Some people thought they did not have a dog in this fight. However, the range of attacks is growing in terms of geography as well as targets,” he said, mentioning that gay people are now also on the list of potential targets.
The report was released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in the Peloponnese district of Manolada suffered shotgun wounds during a dispute over six months of back pay with their supervisors. The three foremen have been charged with attempted murder and illegal weapons possession and will await trial in prison custody.
Most of the documented hate attacks occurred in the Athens districts of Omonia, Aghios Panteleimonas, Attiki Square and Amerikis Square – all areas with large immigrant populations. Forty-four of the victims were asylum seekers, four were recognized refugees, 15 possessed residence permits, and 79 were unregistered, according to the report. The majority were Muslims.
Most victims were attacked in public spaces such as squares or on public transport, usually by groups of men dressed in black, and at times with military trousers, wearing helmets or with their faces covered. Several carried Golden Dawn insignia or had been spotted at public events organized by the party. Perpetrators occasionally included Albanian immigrants.
In many cases victims reported the use of weapons, such as clubs, crowbars, folding batons, chains, brass knuckles, knives and broken bottles. Assailants sometimes used large dogs.
“The victims had suffered multiple injuries,” said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, ranging from fractures and contusions to symptoms of posttraumatic stress.
Fear of attack has turned several neighborhoods in Athens into no-go areas for the capital’s immigrant population.
“People are too afraid to walk out of their home to buy bread,” said the president of the Association of Afghans United in Greece, Reza Golami.
Activists worryingly noted a growing involvement of police officials and public servants in racist attacks. Most such incidents, the report said, concerned duty officers who resorted to illegal acts and violent practices while carrying out routine checks.
“Many in the police force have come to view racist violence as something normal, a natural state of affairs,” Papaioannou said, adding that part of the problem is that xenophobic language has moved deep into mainstream territory.
Before the 2012 elections, Antonis Samaras, now leader of Greece’s conservative-led coalition, pledged to “reclaim” cities from the hordes of illegal immigrants.
Some of the attacks, the report said, came from public servants. Earlier this month a bus driver in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, forced two passengers to get off his bus because they were immigrants.
Experts said that many victims are reluctant to report the attacks because they lack legal documents and are therefore afraid that the police will arrest and deport them.
“Instead of investigating whether a crime has been committed, police officers rather check whether the victims have legal residence permits,” said Vassilis Papastergiou from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees.
Activists said authorities should instead provide for the suspension of arrest and deportation decisions against victims who file a complaint. The report recommended that victims be given a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, similar to the protection awarded to victims of trafficking – a status awarded to the Manolada victims.
“We hope that the interest in these people will not last only as long as the spotlight is on Manolada,” Papaioannou said.