Greece takes it out on immigrants

Bloody attacks against minorities have spiked as Golden Dawn rises

Immigrants in the crosshairs

Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP

A year ago, Musta Amid paid human traffickers to smuggle him to Greece over the Turkish border—the most porous in Europe. “All I want is to work,” said the 19-year-old Nigerian, sitting on a commuter train bound for Athens, where he sells handmade crafts. A Greek in his twenties, sitting nearby, apparently angered by his story, interjected: “Why should you monkeys have work when I don’t? I’ve been unemployed for a year. This is my country and if anyone should have work, it should be me.” The conversation on the suburban train, as it whizzed past an endless stream of graffiti supporting Hrisi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, Greece’s extreme-right party, emboldened a tough-looking, elderly man. “The Turks should’ve drowned you like rats,” he snarled. “Greece is for Greeks. Get out and take everyone like you with you. Golden Dawn will show you the way with a kick in the ass!”

Two years ago, blatantly racist outbursts like these would have been inconceivable in Greece. But the economic crisis has given rise to a dangerous new form of nationalism—and Golden Dawn, which captured its first seat on Athens city council two years ago, is perfectly placed to take advantage. In June, the once-marginal extremist party won 18 parliamentary seats in Greece’s general election. It campaigned against austerity measures and immigration—what the party spokesperson calls a government conspiracy to turn Greece into a “wretched protectorate inhabited by subhumans with no conscience, no country and no national culture.”

Such statements contribute to the marked increase in violence and intimidation directed at Greece’s immigrants. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch warned that xenophobic violence in Greece has reached “alarming proportions,” and accused Greek authorities of doing nothing to stop the attacks.

Golden Dawn’s success is due in no small part to Greece’s desperate financial straits. In the last quarter, gross domestic product shrank by more than six per cent from 2011; the unemployment rate for Greeks under 25 now tops 54 per cent. Some Greek youth, like Stefanos Stavropoulos, a former security guard who lives in Athens, are looking to Golden Dawn—whose members are known to make Nazi salutes at rallies—for answers. “If we don’t take care of our own, who will?” says the 26-year-old. Golden Dawn’s “Greece for Greeks” policy makes sense to Stavropoulos, now a party member. His mentor within the party, Christos, a senior military officer who refused to give his last name, blames undocumented migrants—a “virus,” he calls them—for giving “birth” to the economic crisis. For Christos, the solution is simple: “Get rid of the immigrants, and you solve the economic problem.”

Yet Golden Dawn is not alone in politicizing Greece’s immigration debate. The minister for public order, Nikos Dendias, is promising to crack down on undocumented migrants, whom he describes as being part of an “invasion,” and “a bomb at the foundations of society.” Dendias gives extremist groups the “green light to attack at will,” says Cleopatra Lambessis-Vrettos, a 65-year-old retired teacher. Vrettos abhors the violent behaviour and nationalist slogans of Greek extremists. “They’re bullies and they’re taking advantage of the present economic situation,” she says. “But,” she says, “we can’t deny that there is a problem. We have an immigrant problem and we are sinking under the weight of incompetence from our leaders and the EU.”

In some Athens neighbourhoods, where the government is failing to provide social services and security, Golden Dawn hands out bread, milk and dried goods to those hurt by the economic crisis—as long as they’re Greek nationals, with the ID to prove it. The step may be unnecessary; by now, immigrants know to steer clear of Golden Dawn’s black shirts and swastika-like emblem, which they are coming to associate with intimidation and violence. In a video that went viral last week, Golden Dawn MP Giorgos Germenis leads a group of men through a night market, requesting permits from vendors and, at one point, toppling a stall and scattering merchandise. “We noticed some illegal immigrants trying to sell their stuff without the appropriate licences. Then we did what Golden Dawn must do,” Germenis said.

Anna Avloniti, a recently widowed 72-year-old, praises “the boys,” and prays for their safety each night as she lights a sacred oil lamp. Avloniti lives in a beautiful neoclassical building in Athens’s Agios Panteleimonas neighbourhood. Growing up, she says, the neighbourhood “was clean and everyone knew each other—it was safe. Now, it’s filthy and dangerous.” She points to the corner where several visible minorities stand among bins overflowing with garbage conducting what she suspects are drug deals. “Would you want to walk past them to buy a loaf of bread?”

Voters like Avloniti are either unaware of, or choose to justify Golden Dawn’s darker, more violent side. Several Golden Dawn MPs have been charged with a range of violent crimes, from armed robbery to assault, while rights groups claim the party’s sympathizers have been inspired and emboldened by political support for their anti-immigrant position.

Swarms of young, masked men on motorcycles carrying clubs and chains now roam the streets at night in neighbourhoods heavily populated by immigrants. In August, a 19-year-old Iraqi was stabbed and killed by a gang on motorcycles in full view of Parliament. Bloody attacks have become an almost daily occurrence. Daphne Kapetanaki, a protection associate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says many of the attacks go unreported for fear of retaliation. Some undocumented migrants are afraid of being arrested and deported. Some claim the perpetrators are police officers. Former police union leader Dimitris Kyriazidis accuses police of turning “a blind eye to extreme-right groups affiliated to Golden Dawn, which are running amok across the country.”

Mohammad, a 34-year-old from Bangladesh who would only give his first name, is terrified. “I’m afraid to leave my house,” he says. One night last spring, some young Greek men grabbed his friend from a bus stop and forced him into their vehicle. They beat him, then threw him from the car.

Mohammad has been in Athens illegally for six years, working at a vegetarian café downtown. “Each day, I take a different route to work,” he says. “I can’t go back home and I can’t go forward, so I stay here hoping I will one day become legal.” Shortly after the interview, Mohammad was detained, said his boss at the café, Iradj Shakib. He was rounded up under a government raid of undocumented immigrants—the Zeus Xenios program, named for the Greek god of hospitality.