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Europe

Greeks turn immigrants to scapegoats

A confrontational tone is emerging in Greek society as racist attacks increase and political conflict escalates. Observers believe the economic crisis is just one of the reasons for the unrest.

It happened in broad daylight on Saturday (25.08.2012) in the town of Manolada in western Greece, as migrant workers helped with the annual strawberry harvest.

Two men jammed a 22-year-old Egyptian man in one of their car's windows after a heated argument then dragged him nearly a kilometer through town. According to police, the man had previously attacked the pair. According to leftist opposition newspapers, the Egyptian man had merely demanded outstanding wages.

It was one of a handful of recent attacks on foreigners in Greece. Earlier this month, an Iraqi man was stabbed in downtown Athens, and human rights organizations report that at least 200 attacks with racist overtones happened in Greece in the past two months. For the most part, they blame the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party for stoking xenophobia. The party has 18 seats in the national parliament.

A protester prepares to hit riot police with a stick during clashes on June 29, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Some protests in Greece turned into street riots

Some political commentators have drawn comparisons between Greece and the Weimar Republic in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The nascent democracy formed in the aftermath of World War I failed in 1933 when the Nazis took power. Historians point out that the collapse was also the result of a global economic crisis, and the population's financial distress made them susceptible to Hitler's propaganda.

"There are parallels between present-day Greece and the Weimar Republic," said Eleni Karasavidou, a Greek sociologist and writer from Thessaloniki. "For instance, some people think they are better than others, or they claim the whole world has conspired against the country."

Grappling with illegal immigration

People are apparently looking for someone to blame their economic and social situation on, she told DW, because they have the feeling that the crisis has pulled rug out from under their feet.

"Then the weaker ones, the immigrants, serve as scapegoats," Karasavidou said.

Occasionally, immigrants are the aggressors. Earlier this month, a Pakistani man was accused of attacking and raping a 15-year-old Greek girl on the island of Paros. The girl has been in a coma ever since. Police arrested the alleged attacker and barely managed to protect him from people who wanted to lynch him in front of the court building.

Illegal immigrants watch from behind a fence as police patrol the perimeter of a detention center at Amygdaleza, on the northern fringes of Athens, Photo:Thanassis Stavrakis/AP/dapd

Thousands of immigrants try to enter Greece without papers

Another incident outraged the public in Athens in the summer of 2011: three North Africans stabbed a man to death in the street to steal his video camera. The case led to riots against innocent immigrants in the Greek capital. Police used teargas and batons on rioters seeking what they called revenge.

"The situation is extremely complicated," Panagiotis Loakeimidis, a professor for European Studies at the University of Athens, told DW. "Violence against foreigners is completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances."

Abandoned Greeks

But he added that Greece has a huge problem with illegal immigration and feels it has been left to its own devices in dealing with it. "The more the crisis escalates, the more prone to violence society will become," Loakeimidis said.

He said there has been a lack of European support in policing Greece's eastern border, which is also the eastern border of the European Union. He admitted it is the responsibility of the government in Athens to prevent violence and to balance competing social interests, but added that it's a job Greek politicians are not adept at.

Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (R) acknowledges applause from his ministers after his speech during a parliament session in Athens July 8, 2012. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis (GREECE - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS)

Greece's current government represents a ray of hope for creating consensus

"Confrontational exchanges are part of our politicians' standard repertoire," he said. "When you look at recent Greek history you see that a culture of compromise is nearly always lacking among the political classes."

Avoiding the jungle

The crisis has made compromise even harder and tough times have been translated into tough rhetoric. But there is a glimmer of hope. "With the new coalition government, we are witnessing a unique experiment and a consensus that has never existed before." Coalition governments have been rare in Greece and often collapsed due to political bickering. But this time there is a basic agreement among the governing parties on Greece's place in Europe.

Karasavidou said blaming politicians would be an easy but misguided solution.

"Democracy means, above all, personal responsibility," she said, adding that Greek citizens needed to develop the realization that the current societal problems affect them personally. "I'm not talking about setting up an unrealistic long-term goal, I don't necessarily need a perfect paradise. But I don't want to live in a social jungle either."

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