ATHENS – A rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece – including within a new coalition government – has led to an avalanche of assaults, at least 300 of which have been catalogued by human rights groups who called on the police to offer better protection. Nearly half of police officers, however, reportedly voted for the anti-immigrant neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn which won 18 seats in Parliament in the June 17 election, but has denied it participated in the violent attacks.
Greece is a gateway to the European Union and attracts immigrants, particularly from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom want to use the country for a jumping-off point. Prior to the elections, a coalition government rounded up scores of thousands of illegal immigrants and set up detention centers to hold them. New Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, overseeing another coalition government, also said he wants to force illegal immigrants out of the country, and Greece is asking for European Union help to handle the overflow on its shores and land borders.
In Athens, many immigrants live crammed in small apartments in squalid conditions in central neighborhoods that have seen a sharp rise in crime since the financial crisis began in late 2009. Associated Press reported that activists have linked the surge in attacks against immigrants to the political rise of Golden Dawn, which uses aggressive rhetoric against immigrants. Its members have been accused of being behind several of the attacks.
The anti-racism campaigners said five Indian and Pakistani immigrants were injured on July 16 when they were attacked by some 20 masked men in their homes in Menidi, six miles north of Athens. One alleged victim, Indian immigrant Vije Kumar, had extensive cuts and bruises and said he was beaten with clubs and metal bars. “It was 10 o’clock at night and I was sitting outside eating because it was really hot … suddenly about 20 men appeared, maybe more. They were all wearing hoods. They started hitting us,” Kumar, a 40-year-old frame maker who has lived in Greece for 12 years, told the AP. “We didn’t realize what was happening in the beginning. They really beat us badly. It was like they were trying to kill us.”
Javied Aslam, who heads a Pakistani immigrant group in Greece, said the attackers forced their way into seven homes, assaulting occupants and smashing property. “These are fascist gangs and someone has to stop them,” Aslam said. “They smashed everything – TV sets, refrigerators, doors and windows. Four of the homes were inhabited by Pakistanis and the other three by Indians.”
In a report issued last week, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said it had documented recent gang attacks on dozens of immigrants living in Greece, including children and pregnant women, and also warned of a surge in xenophobic violence. Greek police do not keep statistics on racially-motivated crimes, arguing that the motive for violent offenses is often unclear.
Aslam, whose organization is part of the Athens-based Campaign Against Racism, said anti-immigrant violence had surged before general elections were held on May 6 and June 17. Since early April, and during the time the election campaigns were in full swing, Aslam said his and other groups had received 300 reports of assaults on immigrants. “The number is probably higher,” he said, alleging that attackers often said they were from Golden Dawn. While denying any role in such attacks, the party has argued that the violence is far less significant than a surge in crime caused by illegal immigrants.
The Campaign Against Racism’s Petros Constantinou said the new government should give priority to stopping violent street gangs who pick their targets by skin color. He also accused the police of often turning a blind eye to crimes against immigrants – an accusation the police have denied in the past.