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.
“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.