Racist attacks rocketing in Greek capital

"Against Nazi", graffiti in Athens. Photo: Bethan Williams
“Against Nazi”, graffiti in Athens. Photo: Bethan Williams

Last year, 154 incidents of racist violence were recorded in Athens. Rising popularity of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn suggests a link, says expert.

By Mette-Sofie Holst Sommer

It is rush hour in Athens. At the back of a tightly packed bus, a man of Middle Eastern origin has managed to find a free seat.

As the doors open with a loud swoosh, four young Greek men enter. Arrogantly they shove the man away from his spot. They’re laughing and through the glass barrier in front of the seat row, one of the guys mimes something to the man.

He looks down and gets off the bus at the next stop on Patission Street.

Numbers don’t reflect reality
Incidents like this are everyday life for thousands of immigrants in Athens. People call them names when they pass them in street and armed policemen stop them to see their “pink card”; a document that proves they have applied for asylum in Greece.

More worryingly though, is that Greece has seen a steep increase in violent racist attacks on immigrants in the past few years.

NGO’s say the figures of 154 attacks, which the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) in Greece recorded in 2012, are minimal to what is actually happening, as victims are afraid to report the attacks.

Few take legal action
In only 24 of the recorded incidents, the victim had taken legal action. 23 would like to, but the rest did not wish to take any action at all as they are illegally in the country.

“Many of the victims lack legal documentation and they are afraid that they will get arrested and deported if they report the assaults to the police. This means the recorded incidents are only a fraction of reality, ” explains Athena Constantinou, Communication Officer at the Greek Council for Refugees.

According to Kostis Papaioannou, President of the National Commission for Human Rights, priorities within the police force might be a part of the problem.

“Instead of dealing with the complaints from a potential victim of crime, the police prioritise the control of the victim’s legal residence in the country and abstain from their duty to investigate the reported incident,” he says.

The extreme right
At the medical organisation Doctors of the World, coordinator Christina Samartzi says that the past two years they have seen a rise in the number of people that come to the clinic to be treated after attacks.

“The victims are generally men between the age of 18 and 35. They are all immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers. We treat them and encourage them to contact the police, but the majority are very scared of this,” she says.

According to the RVRN, in 91 of the 154 cases, the victims believed that the perpetrators were linked to extremist groups.

Some recognized persons associated to the extreme right and neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, as they wore the logo of the party, an old Greek symbol that resembles the Swastika.

Others had recognized the perpetrators as associates of the local branch of the party.

Rising popularity for Golden Dawn
At the parliamentary elections in June 2012 Golden Dawn, or Chrysi Avgi as they are called in Greek, won 7% of the popular vote and 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

The party was founded by Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, who was also elected to the Athens City Council in 2010.

On his first appearance there, he promptly raised his right arm to give the Nazi salute.

“It’s impressive that they have been able to pull so many votes, as they used to be a very small movement,” says Mogens Pelt, Associate Professor in International History at Copenhagen University, who claims there is a link between the rising numbers of hate crimes against foreigners and Golden Dawn’s booming popularity.

Greeks cry for help
On a call from thousands of Greeks that signed a petition, worried about the rise of violent attacks, the Council of Europe went to Greece in February to investigate the problem.

The Council’s report found that a number of the attacks have been linked to members or supporters, including parliamentarians, of the neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.

Furthermore it identified that “rhetoric stigmatising migrants is widely used in Greek politics. The authorities must firmly condemn all instances of hate speech and hate crime and lead by example in public, migration-related debates.”

In the midst of the crisis
Like Professor Pelt, Papaioannou believes the situation has worsened because of the socioeconomic crisis.

“The degradation of the quality of life and the rise of delinquency in areas with large numbers of marginalized migrants and refugees constitute a fertile soil for social tensions, xenophobic behaviour and tolerance regarding racist violence,” he says.

We were unable to get a comment from the Golden Dawn, as it is their policy not to give interviews with foreign journalists. However, the party’s official website states to fight Greek unemployment, deportation of all illegal immigrants is necessary.

Furthermore they state that “Illegal immigrants are invaders, who decompose the Greek social structure and alienate our national identity” in the section End illegal immigration.

According to Pelt, Golden Dawn’s popularity can be explained by three factors.

“Firstly, immigration in Greece has always been a large-scaled phenomenon and the foreigners have always been visible in the streets cape. Secondly, Golden Dawn was the first party to politically address it as a problem, and thirdly, the country is in deep economic recession and the Greeks are disappointed and furious with the political system. Golden Dawn blames the immigrants for taking the Greeks’ jobs, which allows people to put a face to all the problems,” Pelt says.

Living in fear
Golden Dawn’s rising popularity has not only had an impact on Greece’s political climate, but also on the everyday life of the immigrants.

Lauretta Macauley, President of the United African Women’s Organization, migrated from Sierra Leone to Greece 30 years ago. She has a residence permit and speaks Greek, but the years after the economic crisis broke out changed her life drastically.

Hear Lauretta Macauley talk about life as an immigrant in Greece

“I live in fear now. I am scared to go outside, because I am afraid something will happen to me,” she says.

It is mostly men that have been targets of racist attacks, but Lauretta Macauley knows a woman, who was beaten on a bus by men in black.

“It makes me disgusted. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel disappointment,” she says with a look on her face that reflects exactly those feelings.

Greeks are scared too
At Babel Day Centre, a mental health unit for foreigners in Athens, founder Nikos Gionakis has seen an increase of around 400 patients the in past year.

“People are more afraid. Not only because of the attacks; the general climate is fear. It is hard for them to discuss it with us, so we have to wait a long time. They don’t speak easily of what has happened to them here in Greece,” he says.

As he speaks of their fear, he admits that it is not only the immigrants, but also ethnic Greeks like himself that are scared.

“At Babel Day Centre we try not to make much publicity of our work. We are too afraid. It’s a sad reality,” he says with tears in his eyes.



Greek government feuds over anti-racism law

Immigrant receives legal advice. Photo: Mette-Sofie Sommer
Immigrant receives legal advice. Photo: Mette-Sofie Sommer

The last week of May the Greek coalition government failed to agree on a new anti-racism law. The Council of Europe calls on action to battle the rise of hate crimes.

By Mette-Sofie Holst Sommer and Bethan Williams

On Monday 27th May, Greek politicians met to discuss a new law that aims to criminalise acts of racial violence.

Centre-left party PASOK wants to pass the bill in order to restrain the activities of the extreme-right party, Golden Dawn, who have several times been accused of carrying out violent attacks on immigrants.

However, the biggest party New Democracy believes the present laws are sufficient. Therefore the new legislation, which aimed to fight the steep rise of violent attacks with racist motives, was not passed.

Fragmented persecution
As the law currently stands, the court must first prove the guilt of the perpetrator for the basic offense; the violent attack.

Only then will it be considered whether the threshold of an aggravating circumstance, like a racist motive, is actually met.

“The state should provide that the racist motive is adequately investigated at all stages of the criminal proceeding,” says Kostis Papaioannou, President of the National Commission for Human Rights in Greece.

No protection policy
Lawyer Maria Spiliotakara expresses the difficulties to work within the legislative procedure, as the protection of victims is not institutionalized.

She believes the approach of the government is unrealistic.

“The problem is the Greek policy on immigrant protection; a policy, I would say, doesn’t exist,” Spiliotakara says.

Calling for help
In September 2012 the Council of Europe received a petition from Greece signed by more than 18,000 individuals. Alarmed by the recent rise of racist violent attacks, they requested the Commissioner of Human Rights’ intervention; especially those linked to the Golden Dawn.

Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe, Nils Muižnieks, went to Greece and in a report published in April this year he expressed his concern over Greece’s inability to fight the hate crimes.

“The authorities must give effect to binding international standards and domestic anti-racism law and accelerate the adoption of the bill concerning racism and xenophobia through criminal law, pending since 2011,” states the report.

He calls on the Greek authorities to firmly condemn all instances of hate speech and hate crime.

Self-invented protection
The lack of anti-racism legislation and the rise in popularity for Golden Dawn continues to affect Greece’s immigrants.

“With little protection from the state, people are forced to invent ways of protecting themselves. They walk in groups and warn each other by text messages if anything is going on,” says Marvia Ahmed, President of the Greek Forum of Refugees.

He explains that in some areas of Athens, men are often seen with young children walking 2-3 meters behind them. Their role is to run back and inform the family if the man gets attacked.

Five years overdue
Not only could the Greek politicians not agree on a new anti-racism law.

Greece is also five years overdue with the implementation of a piece of legislation, which was decided by the European Council Framework Decision.

The bill, for which the deadline was November 2008, could enhance law and practice and is aimed to “combat certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.”

‘A marginal phenomenon’
In a comment on the report from the Greek Government, they express their shared concern for the increasing numbers of hate crimes.

But they also highlight that “fortunately, however, racist attitudes remain a marginal phenomenon in the Greek society.”

“Huge problems currently facing the Greek society due to the economic crisis, combined with the problems arising from the continued influx of thousands of illegal immigrants, have not blurred the society’s judgement,” the government adds.

Undeniable evidence
Just like the Commissioner, Papaioannou believes that the phenomenon is endangering the country’s democracy and Greek society at large.

He expresses his concern over the change in social attitude.

“The prevalence of violence is undeniable evidence that part of the Greek society is alienated from basic principles of respect for human dignity and democracy,” Papaioannou says.

‘Chronic shortcomings’
In the report Commissioner Muižnieks also draws focus on what he calls “chronic shortcomings of Greece’s justice system.”

He criticises the excessively lengthy proceedings, the lack of an effective remedy and that the court fees are costly.

“Victims of hate crimes should be exempt from criminal complaint fees and should receive adequate legal aid and assistance,” the report urges.




Racist attacks surging in Greek capital

In the heart of economic crisis, the number of attacks on immigrants in Athens has increased dramatically during the past two years.

Academic suggests that this is due to the rising popularity of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

The Council of Europe urges Greece to take action.

To read more click here.

Watch our video clip about immigration in Greece



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