Attacks on Immigrants on the Rise in Greece

December 1, 2010
ATHENS — A wave of violent attacks against immigrants by suspected right-wing extremists has put Muslims and the police on alert in rundown parts of Athens with burgeoning migrant populations.

Immigrants have been beaten and stabbed near central squares, and several makeshift mosques have been burned and vandalized. In the most grievous attack, at the end of October, the assailants locked the door of a basement prayer site and hurled firebombs through the windows, seriously wounding four worshipers.

“The attacks are constant — I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Naim Elghandour, who moved to Athens from Egypt in the 1970s and now heads the Muslim Association of Greece. “I used to be treated like an equal. Now I’m getting death threats.”

Tensions in neglected, crime-ridden parts of Athens with growing immigrant communities have been mounting over the past two years. Highlighting expanding public discontent, the extreme right-wing group Chrysi Avgi, or “Golden Dawn,” won its first ever seat on the Athens City Council in local elections three weeks ago. The group mustered strong support in working-class neighborhoods in the capital and elsewhere in Greece by describing migrants as a drain on the economy, which is reeling from a debt crisis, and calling for immediate deportations.

The Greek news media linked the group to the violence after a spray-painted cross merged with a circle — a symbol used by extreme rightists worldwide — was found on the wall of a firebombed prayer site. But the police have not confirmed a connection, saying no arrests have been made. The group did not respond to requests for comment.

Thanassis Kokkalakis, a police spokesman, said the problem was complex. He said that while “extremist elements” were believed to be behind certain attacks, there was also violence between migrants of different ethnic origins, muggings of Greeks by poverty-stricken foreigners and clashes between extreme rightists and left-wing protesters.

“All this chaos stems from a constantly growing population of immigrants in these areas,” said Mr. Kokkalakis, noting that about 150 migrants arrived in Athens daily despite the mobilization of European Union guards in early November at Greece’s land border with Turkey. “The upheaval has fueled aggravation among residents, which is being exploited by extremist groups.”

The residents of the problem areas are divided: Some want dialogue and better policing, while others are taking matters into their own hands. Elderly and middle-aged residents often sit in local squares during the daytime, shouting abusive statements at migrants when they go by. Small gangs of teenagers stalk the neighborhoods by night, but it remains unclear if they are locals or visiting extremists.

The police have stepped up patrols following reports of attacks by vigilantes who, locals say, are as young as 14. “I saw three kids bashing an Afghan man with wooden poles until blood ran down his face,” said Muhammad, the Syrian manager of a convenience store in Aghios Panteleimonas, once a lively neighborhood, now a no-go zone. Like other migrants living in the area, he would not give his surname for fear of reprisals.

The exact number of attacks remains unclear. “The victims are usually too scared to go to police,” said Thanassis Kourkoulas, a spokesman for Deport Racism, a group that offers targeted migrants advice and support.

Others say this reflects a general trend in Europe. “Hate crimes against Muslims are underreported and underrecorded,” said Taskin Soykan, who advises the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on combating racial intolerance.

The attacks in Greece mirror similar incidents in other European countries, including Switzerland, where a referendum last November led to a ban on the construction of minarets on mosques, and in France and Italy, where the authorities have deported Roma residents and immigrants.

“The difference in Italy is that most of the attacks were in the provinces, while in Greece they are in the heart of the capital, which is potentially far more explosive,” Liz Fekete of the Institute of Race Relations in London said. “The common factor is the formation of vigilante groups, egged on by the far right.”

Angry protesters, including some thought to be right-wing extremists, had to be restrained by the police last month when thousands of Muslims congregated in several Athens squares for a religious festival. At one site, officers fired tear gas to disperse a small group of demonstrators, who continued their protest from the balconies of apartment complexes, pelting worshipers with eggs and playing loud music to disturb the prayers.

The day after the protests, government officials said a stalled project to build an official mosque was back on track. Athens is the only capital of the original 15 E.U. member states to lack a state-approved mosque.

Although the country’s influential Orthodox Church has given its support to the project, opinion polls show that half of Athens’s five million residents oppose the creation of a mosque to serve the capital’s Muslim community, which numbers about 500,000.

“A large mosque with minarets in the city center will be a provocation,” said Dimitrios Pipikios, the head of a residents’ group in Aghios Panteleimonas, where Chrysi Avgi drew 20 percent of the vote in recent elections.

Mr. Pipikios said the only way to ease tensions was to deport immigrants. “There is no room for us all,” he said, adding that extreme rightists were patrolling the area “because the police are not doing their job.”

Other residents said they felt intimidated. “The situation is totally out of control,” said Maria Kanellopoulou, who wants not deportations but the better social integration of immigrants.

The local authorities are determined to tackle the problem, said a spokesman for Giorgos Kaminis, the newly elected mayor of Athens.

“Chasing immigrants away from city squares is an established technique of extreme rightists, and we are seeking advice on how to deal with it,” said the spokesman, Takis Kampilis, who has approached the municipal authorities in Germany, who have averted similar campaigns by neo-Nazis. The new mayor is also planning to improve health care and housing for migrants and organize street markets where they can legitimately sell wares rather than touting illegally on street corners.

Ms. Fekete said increasing integration would help, but to stamp out extreme violence, local and central governments must condemn it in strong terms. “If the authorities do not speak out, public tolerance of the violence will grow,” she said. “This is a wake-up call.”

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