Unwelcome guests: HRW deems crackdown on Greece’s immigrants ‘abusive’

By Harry van Versendaal

Greek authorities must review the procedures of an extensive crackdown on suspected irregular immigrants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday, criticizing police sweeps as abusive and ineffective.

The allegations were made during a presentation of the international organization’s latest report, “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” in the Greek capital on Wednesday. The report highlights invasive police checks and arbitrary detentions within the contours of an ongoing operation dubbed Xenios Zeus, bizarrely code-named after the Greek god of hospitality.

The 52-page report documents frequent police checks of individuals with a foreign-looking appearance, unjustified searches of personal belongings, derogatory verbal language and occasional physical abuse. According to the HRW study, which is based on more than 40 interviews with Athens-based immigrants, tens of thousands are held at police stations pending verification of their legal status.

“There is definite lack of training which gives rise to discrimination from police,” said Eva Cosse, a Greece expert at HRW and author of the report, who said that racist attitudes inside the force are a “chronic” problem.

“Such methods, however, are also a way to send the message and put it across that these people are not welcome,” Cosse said, slamming Greece’s conservative party, now head of the government coalition, for its heavy-handed approach to immigration.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has in the past pledged to “take back our cities from migrants,” while his New Democracy party recently turned down a more inclusive anti-racism bill supported by junior coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left, proposing its won legislation to tackle discrimination instead.

Many of the abuse victims interviewed by HRW said they felt that they were repeatedly targeted by police because of their skin color or other physical characteristics.

A 19-year-old asylum-seeker from Guinea, identified only as Tupac, said that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers off a bus in central Athens shouting “All blacks out, all blacks out.”

Abuse often seems to go beyond ethnic profiling and insulting language. “Body pat-downs and bag searches during immigration stops appear to be routine, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the individual is carrying unlawful or dangerous objects,” the HRW report says.

Gateway

Greece is the main gateway into the European Union for migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The majority hopes to reach one of the more prosperous states in Western Europe, but many become caught up in this debt-wracked country. On top of being exposed to a burgeoning wave of racially motivated attacks, at least partly attributed to the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, immigrants also face arrest, lengthy detention and deportation, as documented by several human rights groups. Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution at home are not spared from the crackdown either, activists say.

The conservative-led government, though, says that its tougher approach to illegal immigration, including more stringent checks on the Evros border with Turkey, where an extra 1,800 guards have been deployed, has led to the number of undocumented migrants trying to reach Greece dropping substantially. Greece reported more than half of all detections of irregular border crossings in the EU from July-September 2012 but only 30 percent between October and December.

“Greece has a right to control irregular migration,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director for HRW, adding that Dublin II regulations are weighing the country down with an uneven share of the burden. “But the country still has to ensure it does not violate human rights,” she said.

Almost 85,000 foreigners were forcibly taken to police stations for verification of their immigration status in the seven-month period between last August, when Xenios Zeus was launched, and this February, according to police figures cited in the report.

“However, 94 percent of those detained had a legal right to be in Greece,” said Goldston, suggesting that police are casting their net too far and too wide.

Evidence, not stereotypes

The very small percentage of those who were found to be in the country without permission should also raise doubts about the effectiveness of the crackdown, HRW warned. Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste of time and money, the group said.

“Operations must be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes,” Cosse said.

HRW called on authorities to review the police’s general stop-and-search powers and to take steps to ensure that the identification of clandestine migrants is conducted in line with Greek and international laws on discrimination, ethnic profiling and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

Worryingly, Goldston said, the HRW findings and recommendations appear to have so far been mostly snubbed by officials at the Public Order Ministry.

“We have met with denial,” she said, adding that government officials have cast doubt on the HRW research and data.

“It is in the DNA of Greeks not to be racist,” Goldston quoted one unnamed Greek official as responding.

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