News / Europe

Greek Police Ignores Migrant Abuse, Rights Group Accuses

Athens police check immigrants' documentsAthens police check immigrants' documents
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Athens police check immigrants' documents
Athens police check immigrants' documents
Selah Hennessy
LONDON – Greek authorities are failing to crack down on a growing wave of xenophobic violence against migrants, according to a report published Tuesday by the campaign group Human Rights Watch.

The report says there is a clear pattern of increasing violence against migrants in Greece.

Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, says most of those abused are from Africa and Asia. Some, he says, are economic migrants but many have fled persecution in countries including Somalia and Afghanistan.

"Because of Greece's policies these migrants tend to end up living on the streets. Because of the color of their skin and the fact that they are living on the streets they are extremely visible," Ward explained. "And it is those groups that have really become the target of these kinds of attacks."

Greece has become a main gateway into Europe for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. But Ward says the Greek system for processing asylum seekers is “broken,” leaving many asylum seekers trapped.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 people for the report - people who said they had escaped or experienced a xenophobic attack between August 2009 and May 2012. The report says 51 of those incidents were serious attacks.

The report says most attacks take place at night, on or near town squares. Ward described to VOA how “vigilantes” have formed so-called “citizen groups” in Athens, patrolling the streets at night and attacking migrants.
 
Ward says the Greek authorities are doing little to protect them.  

"In some cases victims we spoke to said that when they approached the police they were told that they should fight back. In some cases victims were told that they had to pay a 100 euro fee, which was introduced a couple of years ago that has to be paid if you want to report a crime to police," said Ward. "And in some cases people were threatened with arrest because they were undocumented migrants."

Greece is in the middle of a major economic crisis. It is now in its fifth year of recession and unemployment is widespread with nearly one in four Greeks out of work. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund have provided funds to prevent Greece from defaulting on its debts.  But the cash comes with the provision that Greece make big spending cuts and hike up taxes.
 
Ash Amin, an expert in European racial integration at the University of Cambridge, says economic pressures in Greece are fueling xenophobia.  And he says it is a trend that stretches well beyond Greek borders.  

"This is a phenomenon that affects all of Europe- north and south, east and west- but of course to varying degrees. It's a real politics of fear of the stranger," Amin said.

He says political parties have played their part in fuelling anti-immigration sentiment. In a number of European countries right-wing politicians with an anti-immigrant platform have been gaining political ground in recent elections.
 
"Unless some of the major political forces take it upon themselves to define Europe as a plural society, as a multicultural entity, as a place in which the problem is not immigration but lack of growth and lack of social cohesion and lack of integration then I think Europe faces potentially a very dark future," said Amin.

In Greece, a new government was voted into power last month. Human Rights Watch says it needs to take immediate steps to tackle the xenophobic violence.

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