Writing by Patrick Keddie
The financial crisis may have increased solidarity between many people in Greek society but it has also exacerbated tensions and led to what Human Rights Watch describes as a rising “epidemic” in racist attacks on migrants by the police and thugs affiliated to far-right groups.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Greece (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Human Rights, a Greek NGO, launched a three month pilot project on 1st October 2011 to document racist attacks and challenge a climate in which the authorities fail to record or investigate the increasing number of racist attacks and where victims are often reluctant to come forward.
The project, known as the Network Recording Incidents of Racist Violence, documented dozens of cases of violence carried out against migrants. The network, which is now being expanded across Greece, was restricted in terms of geographical area and had a limited number of volunteers recording information. Therefore, the figures are likely to depict an extremely conservative picture of the true scale of the problem.
Police Violence Against Migrants
The network recorded 63 cases of violent attacks, the victims of which were mostly male (56 men, 7 women). They recorded 18 incidents where racist violence was perpetrated by officers during their police duties.
Amnesty International Greece has documented severe injuries sustained by ‘H’, a 15 year old Afghan boy, who was savagely beaten by police in the port city of Patras, after being caught hiding in a lorry boarding a ship bound for Italy. According to Amnesty, ‘H’ was hospitalised on 4 October 2011 for 14 days and was in a coma for 7 days after sustaining a severe head injury that required 36 stitches.
Amnesty showed us medical reports and photographs showing a large pink wound across ‘H’’s lower back, where flesh had been flayed off, allegedly from having a motorcycle tyre held over his body and revved by a police officer as he lay prone on the ground following the assault.
Despite an operation, the wound has festered as ‘H’ has been forced at times to sleep outside and it is continuing to cause him severe discomfort. As far as Amnesty is aware, the police have not investigated the incident or taken any action.
‘H’’s friend, a fellow Afghan named ‘Ibrahim’, 17, says that ‘H’ was “very nervous all the time after the attack, he would search for things that were actually in front of him, or he would forget some things that had just happened. He couldn’t run and he had problems walking. The wound on his back is still painful.” He claims that ‘H’ still has difficulty sitting up and has lost feeling on the side of his head where he sustained the injury. Despite the attack and the severity of his injuries, ‘H’ is desperate to leave Greece and has returned to Patras to try to sneak aboard a ship to Italy.
‘Ibrahim’ had spent a significant amount of time in Patras trying to board ships but had been forcibly returned to Athens by the authorities. He claimed that the police frequently go to the squatted warehouses in Patras, where migrants sleep as they prepare to try to board a ship in the port, with the deliberate intention to inflict injuries on the migrants. “They try to beat us to not leave marks” he said, “They put a fist or foot on the neck and push down against the floor, or they kick them in the ribs to not leave signs. They try to injure you so you cannot walk well or run.”
Racist Gangs and the Far-Right
The results released by the Network Recording Racist Violence also found that 18 of the perpetrators were from racist and extremist groups, whilst 26 acted alone. Many of the incidents required the victim to be hospitalised and there were also instances of damage caused to property and vehicles due to racist motives.
Areas in Athens, such as Attiki square, are now regularly patrolled by vigilantes from racist groups who have beaten and attacked migrants. Many racist attacks against migrants in Greece have been directly linked to Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), a neo-Nazi group who blame immigrants for Greece’s crisis and seek their removal from the country. The organisation gained around 7% of the vote in May’s general elections, winning 21 seats in the Greek parliament. In the last general election in 2009, they had received just 0.29% of the vote. Racist graffiti and Chrysi Avgi’s serpentine, swastika-like symbol is now a common sight on the walls in many Athens neighbourhoods.
Hassan Yassar, 35, from Yemen lives with around 50 other people, mostly North Africans, in abandoned train carriages under a bridge near to Larissa Station. He was attacked by around ten people in Attiki Square; he claims his attackers were Greek and had shaved heads. They punched and kicked him in the ribs, leg, stomach and face – breaking his front tooth. The attack happened in early March and he is still suffering. “This week I cannot eat due to the pain” he told us, “When I go to the doctor they say nothing, when I go to the police they say nothing.”
Zabi Rashidi, a 28 year old journalist, fled Afghanistan after receiving information that made him fear for his life. He arrived in Greece in late December 2011 and he claimed that after only two or three days after arriving he was attacked by seven or eight Greek people, armed with bottles and sticks, damaging his knee so severely that he can’t walk without it being heavily bandaged.
He is now afraid to leave the house in case he is attacked again or arrested by the police for having no papers. “The nights are not good, there are fascist people. I don’t like to go out now as I’m scared” he said, adding “I don’t want to stay in Greece – life is very dangerous here.”
Migrants as Scapegoats
Due to inconclusive results in the general elections in May preventing the formation of a government, Greeks will go back to the polls on 17 June 2012. Migrants have been treated as convenient scapegoats for Greece’s financial woes and the public discourse is Greece is overwhelmingly anti-immigrant. As support for racist, far-right groups and political parties continues to grow, the violence against migrants by racist groups and the police shows little sign of abating.
Despite repeated invitations, the Greek police and Ministry of Information declined to be interviewed or provide comments on violence against migrants or immigration policy for this article.
It is clear that the economic crisis has devastated Greece and that without drastic help from the EU and the UN, the dire plight facing refugees and economic migrants entering Europe’s gateway will steadily worsen. But it is also true that migrants have been treated badly in Greece in the boom years and that the rights of asylum seekers have long been fundamentally violated.
The Greek God Zeus was also known as Zeus Xenios; the god of travellers. This created a religious obligation in ancient Greece of philoxenia – hospitality to strangers. It is clear that the concept remains widespread in Greece today but exists alongside a significant and worsening xenophobia.
[For David Shaw’s full photo story on the plight of migrants in Greece see here]