ATHENS: Xenophobic attacks on migrants and refugees are flaring up in Greece where economic hardship and crime have fuelled the rise of the far-right and vigilante gangs, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. “Xenophobic violence is a pervasive, shocking and well-known fact,” Judith Sunderland, the US-based watchdog’s senior researcher for Western Europe, told a news conference in Athens.
“We are not seeing an adequate response from the Greek state ... We found arrests are rare and police inaction is the general rule.”
The group said it had interviewed 59 people who experienced or escaped a xenophobic incident between August 2009 and May 2012.
Most involved serious beatings of migrants and asylum seekers and included two pregnant women, HRW said, pointing to an emerging pattern of attacks.
The assailants, operating in gangs that sometimes include women, often wear dark clothing and obscure their faces with motorcycle helmets.
Most use fists, clubs or beer bottles, exhorting the victims to leave Greece and occasionally robbing them as well.
The attacks run parallel to the rise of a neo-Nazi group, Golden Dawn, that has promised to rid the country of illegal migrants and last month elected 18 deputies to parliament for the first time in Greek political history.
“Although no known police analysis or court ruling has linked the citizens’ groups or Golden Dawn with groups carrying out violent attacks on migrants and asylum seekers, there is some evidence to suggest that the attackers are members of or associated with these groups,” the HRW report said.
Victims consistently say that Greek police discouraged them from filing complaints, and in some cases undocumented migrants who tried to report attacks were told they would be detained if they persisted in trying to have a criminal investigation opened.
And a Greek law in 2008 enabling the application of maximum sentences on racist crimes has never been applied in practice, the watchdog said.
“Xenophobic violence is a crime to send a message, and the state has to send a much more powerful message back, that xenophobic violence can never be tolerated in a democratic society,” Sunderland said.
“We are calling on the government to take immediate steps to send out that message,” she said, adding that European institutions should help with technical and financial assistance.
“We want Europe to wake up to what is happening in Greece,” Sunderland said.
Greece is a major hub for illegal immigration to Europe from Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, mostly via neighbouring Turkey.
Nearly 100,000 people were arrested for illegal entry or residence last year and authorities are going through some 30,000 asylum requests.
The new conservative-led government, headed by hawkish former foreign minister Antonis Samaras, has pledged to crack down on undocumented migration which he termed “an unarmed invasion” during the election campaign.
“Illegal migration has turned into an unarmed invasion. This must stop and be reversed. This will send the message to those seeking to come to forget about it. And to those already here, to leave voluntarily,” Samaras had said in April.
“Many ask, can you do something about safety or illegal migration, can you take back our cities? Yes we can,” the 61-year-old leader said, promising deportation within four months.
Greece currently has around 800,000 legally-registered immigrants – many of whom have come from Albania – and a number of undocumented immigrants estimated at more than 350,000, including Afghans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Authorities are building a wire fence on a section of the river Evros, Greece’s natural frontier with Turkey that is a major crossing point into the European Union.
The new conservative-led coalition has also pledged to complete a network of holding centres around the country – many of them converted former army barracks – planned by the last government to enable the screening of asylum seekers.