News / Europe

Greece Targets Migrants Amid Economic Crisis

Afghan migrants Hafeez, Mohammed and Sahil [not pictured] are studying English at an evening class in Athens, Greece, June 2011
Afghan migrants Hafeez, Mohammed and Sahil [not pictured] are studying English at an evening class in Athens, Greece, June 2011

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Henry Ridgwell

As the Greek economy teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, anger is being directed toward the tens of thousands of immigrants living in the capital, Athens.

Many Greeks blame them for rising crime rates and unemployment. Migrant groups say the authorities often ignore, or even encourage racist attacks against them.

The recent killing of a Greek citizen by an unknown assailant has unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant violence across the city.

Afghan migrants Hafeez, Mohammed and Sahil are studying English at an evening class in Athens. Like hundreds of other foreigners living in Greece, Hafeez was recently targeted by anti-immigrant mobs roaming the streets of Athens. His right eye still bears the scars.

“I was on my way back home from work," he said. "When I was walking along the street, there were about six or seven people coming from the opposite side. When they saw me they didn’t say anything, then when they came near to me they started to beat me. They didn’t say anything, they just started to beat me… on my face, on the back of my head, and all over my body.”

Greece is narrowly close to bankruptcy. Facing soaring unemployment and harsh austerity measures, there is a well of anger building in Greek society. Greece’s foreigners are among its victims.

This anti-immigrant demonstration in Athens earlier this year was one of many to turn violent. Still, the flow of migrants into Greece shows no signs of stopping. Up to 300 people a day try to cross the River Evros that divides Greece and Turkey, to reach the European Union. Detention centers are overwhelmed, so most migrants are released after a couple of days.

Nasim Lomani, an Afghan migrant himself, has set up an organization to support immigrants in Athens.

“They cannot find a job, they cannot apply for asylum, they are without papers, so they live on the streets around the city," he said. "For all the Greek problems, it’s the migrants' fault and they are paying for it. It’s the real situation now in Greece.”

Greece says the rest of Europe should do more to help it with the migrant influx. Many Greeks, like Athens resident Nicholaos Sofos, say the country cannot accommodate any more newcomers.

"The Greeks aren't having a good time," said Sofos. "They pay taxes. They have lots of expenses. The quality of life has dropped here in Greece. People who come from these places, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, basically that's where they're from, there are so many and they arrive in such big numbers, that no one can control the situation."

The attacks intensified after a Greek citizen was mugged and killed in Athens in early May, by an unknown assailant. The following day, right-wing gangs began assaulting immigrants, whom they hold responsible for rising crime and unemployment.

“One Bangladeshi guy was killed a few days ago in the center of Athens," said Lomani. "More than 50 people have been injured. From these 50 people, around 30 of them were in the hospital for a few days. During the night they attacked migrants’ houses, broke the doors and windows, they got inside and were beating people. They threw Molotov cocktails into the migrants’ houses.”

Lomani accuses police of arresting immigrants, while turning a blind eye to the violence meted out by right-wing mobs.

Hafeez and his friends are among the estimated 50,000 immigrants waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. He has been waiting for five years.

“I feel that we are not safe. We are in danger," he said. "We left Afghanistan to save our lives, to live safely, now we see here that we are not safe, we are in danger, we could die.”

As the Greek government tries to push through further spending cuts, migrants here fear the hostile atmosphere could get even more dangerous in the coming months.

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