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The recent attack on foreign seasonal workers in Greece shocked the country. It was one incident in a series of attacks on migrants and refugees that has caught the attention of Human Rights organizations.
"In recent years, the number of violent crimes with a racist background hasn't increased dramatically, but their rising intensity is alarming," says Kostis Papaioannou, head of the Greek Commission for Human and Civic Rights: it's increasingly common for attackers to use weapons, severely injuring their victims or even risking their death.
The commission is a member of a Greek anti-racism network which published its annual report on Wednesday (24.04.2013). It documents 154 racist acts of violence in 2012. The actual number is probably much higher, since the report only includes crimes that the victims have reported themselves. The main targets are migrants and refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are also two EU foreigners and a Greek citizen among the victims.
There are thirty groups and organizations in the network - everything from Amnesty International to an association of people infected with HIV. The report has appeared since 2011, since the official figures are seen as unreliable.
Papaioannou, a 47-year-old historian, talks of the country's "structural racism," by which he means that racist violence is increasingly reflected in the structures of the state. Police and courts are often too weak to pursue those responsible, and are sometimes unwilling to do so. Papaioannou says that there have always been attacks on foreigners, but the economic crisis of the last few years has made the situation worse.
Forced into homelessness
The crisis may have intensified racist violence, but Papaioannou says what's worse is the way that fear, insecurity and an inability to cope have spread among the population. That has lowered the threshold for everyday violence, he says.
"It goes so far that people threaten to get the right-wing roughnecks in when they feel treated badly by their neighbor or their tenant. There have to be laws against that," says Papaioannou indignantly. "When you voice such a threat you have to feel the legal consequences."
Reza Golami, chairperson of the "Club of United Afghans" in Athens, is also worried about the rise in racist violence. In addition, he says, the Greek asylum laws were tightened considerably in 2010, making it virtually impossibly for Afghans to apply for asylum in Greece. Golami, himself an asylum seeker, says that many Afghans who come to Greece live on the verge of or even below the existential minimum, so that they have no choice but to sleep rough. That made them easy targets for acts of racist violence.
Many unreported cases
Golami says that lately there have been attacks almost on a daily basis. Two months ago, he says three families were attacked and beaten in a single night on Attikis Square in central Athens. Many refugees from Afghanistan are too afraid to leave the house, he says: "The first thing we tell our fellow countrymen is that they have to be careful and avoid certain parts of the city after sunset."
Refugee organizations point out that many cases of racist violence aren't even reported, either to the authorities or to the public hospitals. Most of the victims don't have valid documents and risk deportation if they get in touch with the police.
Idle legal authorities
Human rights activists call for a residence permit for all victims of racist violence and criticize current police procedures, which they say treat victims as if they were the criminals. Naim Elghandour, the chairman of the Muslim Association of Greece, even takes his criticism of the authorities a step further: in many cases, acts of racist violence are covered up, says the 44year-old from Egypt, who has Greek citizenship.
Elghandour complains that nobody has yet been sentenced, even though there are so many attacks. He gives two examples. Six months ago, an Egyptian employee in a bakery in Salamis was abused for hours by three men. In the other case, "last summer, Egyptian immigrants were assaulted by unidentified attackers. One man was severely injured. He's still on artificial feeding, and has been thrown out of the hospital because he didn't have any health insurance. In both cases the perpetrators have gone unpunished."