Between Scylla and Charybdis: No haven from hatred for migrants in Greece

Greece is one of the top destinations for immigrants from Africa and the Mideast. But the far-right Golden Dawn party and even law enforcement officials target migrants for discrimination and abuse.

Kostas Tsironis/AP/File
An immigrant shouts during an anti-racist protest in Athens in March 2014, with sign in background reading 'Smash the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in every neighborhood.'

Standing outside a small African grocery store in this quiet Athens suburb, chiseled arms folded over a barrel chest, Daniel Ikechukwu hardly looks like the kind of man who is easily pushed around.

But he says he’s lost count of how many times over the past several years he’s been wrestled to the ground by Greek police, held down as they search for his papers and shout at him to go back where he came from.

“The way they treat us, it’s seems that we’re not human,” he says, leaning against shelves stacked floor to ceiling with dented tins of vivid red palm oil and dried yams imported from West Africa. “It’s like we’re in one world, and the Greeks, they are in another.”

In fact, when it comes to immigration, Greece stands between two worlds. Pressed up against southern Europe on one side and Turkey and North Africa on the other, the small Mediterranean country is the literal front line for Europe’s burgeoning migrant crisis, the first point of contact for more than 100,000 people seeking asylum on the continent each year. Indeed, in 2011 the European Court of Justice reported that 90 percent of all irregular entry into Europe came through Greece.

It’s also the place where the immigration policies the EU spins out in Brussels smack up against the reality of life in one of its most economically beleaguered corners – often with disastrous consequences. In the last two years, there have been more than 400 hate crimes against migrants in Greece, according to statistics from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece.

“Greece has not handled this well, but it is also true that in many ways, Europe’s external border countries are facing this crisis alone,” says Eva Cosse, a senior research assistant at Human Rights Watch who tracks Greece. “The rest of the EU has hardly shared the burden.”

A 'war against immigrants'?

Statistics on undocumented immigrants are notoriously slippery, but Greece, which has a population of only 11 million, likely plays host to around 1 million foreigners, even as it attempts to stagger out of the 2009 debt crisis that pushed its unemployment level to more than 25 percent.

And the combination of those two elements – immigrants and joblessness – has helped ignite violent far-right politics here, led by the Golden Dawn party, which secured nearly 10 percent of the vote in the most recent European elections.

In its rise to influence, Golden Dawn has become known for a style that blurs politics and overt thuggery – several members of the party leadership, including founder Nikolaos Michaloliakos, are now in jail on charges of forming a criminal organization, and members of the party have been implicated in several attacks against immigrants, minorities, and members of the LGBT community in recent years.

But the war against immigrants stretches beyond the far right. Last year, the country’s chief of police was captured on tape pledging to make the lives of immigrants “unbearable.” And Prime Minister Antonis Samaras pledged during his election campaign in 2012 to “take back our cities” from the “disease” of incoming migrants. That same year, Greek police launched “Operation Xenios Zeus,” ironically named for the god of hospitality, in which they arrested more than 80,000 foreigners accused of being in the country illegally. (Only 6 percent of them actually were).

Part of the problem is Greek law, which has been largely unsympathetic to the interests of migrants – especially those who are undocumented, says Jean-Philippe Dedieu, an expert on immigration at New York University's CIRHUS institute.

“There is a strong fear of reprisals among immigrants if you report a crime,” he says. “And even among those courageous enough to report, we have seen many instances in which the judiciary seems to act in discriminatory ways.”

To that end, the Greek Parliament passed in early September what human rights observers say is a long overdue hate crimes bill, introducing fines and a prison sentence of up to three years for attacks motivated by race and sexual orientation.

Skimming Greek society

But the law, which members of Golden Dawn have already dismissed as a “satanic plot” and an “insult to Greek history,” addresses only part of the wider crisis, experts say.

Thousands of immigrants caught at land borders or bobbing on flimsy boats in the Mediterranean Sea are being held in decrepit prisons and immigration detention centers as their asylum applications churn slowly through the system. (Under EU law, Greece can detain refugees for up to 18 months, and isn’t allowed to return asylum seekers who face danger at home.) Most hope to eventually continue on to northern European countries like Sweden and Germany.

Meanwhile, many of the migrants living and working in the country can do little more than skim across the surface of Greek society – even second-generation immigrants are not generally eligible to become Greek citizens. Chuks Ibe, a Nigerian, has lived in Athens for two decades, but says he won’t learn Greek. Why bother, he asks, when he will never be welcomed here?

But when asked why he doesn’t return to Nigeria, Mr. Ibe gives an answer often echoed by immigrants who come to Greece from the world’s poorest and most violent corridors.

The only thing worse than staying here, he says, would be going home.

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