A backlash against waves of immigrants using Greece as a jumping off point to enter Europe has led to a surge in racist-driven assaults, a report from US-based Human Rights Watch group claimed, and political leaders said they are fearful that extremist groups are trying to create a fascist state.
In a report entitled Hate on the Streets -- Xenophobic Violence in Greece, which came out after six months of research in Athens and other Greek cities, lead researcher Judith Sunderland said the group found at least 300 attacks in three months against Asian and African immigrants, including brutal beatings of teenage boys and pregnant women by gangs of men.
Anti-immigrant fervor has grown in Greece because of a devastating economic crisis that has seen pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensioners leaving Greeks worried about their futures, while rising crime has been blamed on immigrants by groups such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
There are an estimated 1 million immigrants, many of them illegal, in Greece, a country with a population of 11 million.
"We hope we can convince them this is important even in the midst of an economic crisis because if they don't address it now, it will get worse … you have gangs of thugs roaming around attacking people," Sunderland, who met with ministry of public order and citizen protection officials, told SETimes.
The report noted that no one has been convicted under Greece's 2008 statute on hate crimes, and police have failed to protect victims of racist assaults and punish perpetrators. Human Rights Watch called on the new coalition government to create a plan to combat racism, including training for police officers -- 50% of whom were said to have voted for Golden Dawn, and several of which recently were charged with beating an Afghan immigrant.
Golden Dawn, which won 18 seats in parliament on a platform to rid Greece of immigrants, has been linked to a number of the assaults. The party was also found to be behind a racist Tweet declaring that mosquitoes carrying the deadly West Nile virus would find "homemade food" in African immigrants. The tweet was forwarded by Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou, who was expelled from the Greek Olympic team just before the London Games.
The party, which has set up soup kitchens and organised protection groups to galvanise support, has vehemently defended its tactics.
"The only racism in Greece is the racism against the Greeks. Anybody who says even a word against illegal immigrants is held up to public ridicule ... it would be more honest to pass a law condemning everybody who has different views to death by stoning," the group said in a statement.
There's little sympathy for immigrants in the country. The government has rounded up thousands of unlawful immigrants and is constructing detention camps to hold them. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said one of his priorities is to empty Greece of immigrants he said don't belong in the country.
"We must take back our cities," he said, declaring immigrants to be a "disease." He said he also wants to limit or revoke some rights granted to immigrants and their children who were born in Greece.
"The matter of racist violence is not on the government's agenda," Costis Papaioannou, head of the National Committee for Human Rights, told SETimes.
Joe Osamuyi, a 43-year-old Nigerian immigrant, said he has experienced discrimination in his 16 years in Greece, but not the level of violence against foreigners that happened late one night recently at a bus stop where he was waiting. An immigrant next to him, he said, was suddenly pummeled by a group of attackers.
"They didn't say it but you know it was Golden Dawn," he told SETimes.
"Golden Dawn is just a distraction, they are cashing in on the misery and corruption," leaving Greeks fretful for their futures, he said. Osamuyi, a computer scientist who said he could only find work bussing tables in Greece waiting tables, said, "In my workplace there is racism and you hear words of prejudice."
There are no signs racism is abating. Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris -- who is charged with assaulting two leftist MPs during a live TV show before the June 17th elections where he won a seat -- said that Greece's enemies want to turn the country into a "wretched protectorate inhabited by sub-humans with no conscience, country or culture," and called for land mines to be laid along the country's borders.
"The issue of racism in Greece is complex. There is a dangerous escalation of racist violence against refugees and migrants," and some groups are trying to take advantage of uneasiness in Greece, Ketty Kehayioylou, an information officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens, told SETimes.
"The economic crisis caused frustration and social unrest to an emotionally-charged population that looks for scapegoats," she added. UNHCR set up a pilot programme late last year to monitor attacks, and said then that racist violence "is spreading at a terrifying pace, and threatens the country's already damaged social cohesion."
Javied Aslam, who heads a Pakistani immigrant group affiliated with the Athens-based Campaign Against Racism, told the Human Rights Watch researchers that he and five other immigrants were brutally beaten by attackers who forced their way into seven homes, assaulting occupants and destroying property.
"These are fascist gangs and someone has to stop them," he said.
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Distributed via Southeast European Times