Published on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 18:34 Written by Liz Alderman
As townspeople watched, several of them said in interviews, the men careened around the main square, some brandishing shields emblazoned with swastikalike symbols, and delivered an ultimatum to immigrants whose businesses have catered to Nikaia’s Greeks for nearly a decade.
“They said: ‘You’re the cause of Greece’s problems. You have seven days to close or we’ll burn your shop — and we’ll burn you,’ ” said Mohammed Irfan, a legal Pakistani immigrant who owns a hair salon and two other stores. When he called the police for help, he said, the officer who answered said they did not have time to come to the aid of immigrants like him.
A spokesman for the party, Golden Dawn, denied that anyone associated with the group had made such a threat, and there are no official numbers on attacks against immigrants. But a new report by Human Rights Watch warns that xenophobic violence has reached “alarming proportions” in parts of Greece, and it accuses the authorities of failing to stop the trend.
Since the election, an abundance of anecdotal evidence has indicated a marked rise in violence and intimidation against immigrants by members of Golden Dawn and its sympathizers. They are emboldened, rights groups say, by political support for their anti-immigrant ideology amid the worst economic crisis to hit Greece in a decade.
As the downturn deepens across Europe, the political right has risen in several countries, including France, the Netherlands and Hungary. But the situation in Greece shows how quickly such vigilante activity can expand as a government is either too preoccupied with the financial crisis or unable or disinclined to deal with the problem. Greece’s new prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has said he wants to put an end to the “invasion” of illegal immigrants, but “without vigilantism, without extremism.” Yet, as attacks mount even against legal immigrants, he has addressed the violence infrequently.
No country willingly tolerates a large population of illegal immigrants, and Greece, a gateway for migrants from Africa and Asia, has long had more than its share. Its border with Turkey is regarded as the most porous in Europe, and European laws require countries to return illegal migrants to the country from which they entered the European Union.
While that law is suspended in Greece pending a court case, many remain trapped here because of paperwork problems, with no job or means of integrating. They wind up settling in rougher neighborhoods, deepening trends of poverty, crime and drug dealing, and unleashing a wave of popular discontent for Golden Dawn to ride.
Threats, beatings and vows by Golden Dawn followers to “rid the land of filth,” sporadic problems in recent years, have become commonplace since the party claimed 18 of Parliament’s 300 seats in the elections last month, even after Ilias Kasidiaris, the party’s spokesman, repeatedly slapped a female rival during a televised debate.
While some attackers are being arrested, Human Rights Watch and other groups accuse the Greek police of increasingly looking the other way when confronted with evidence of violence, and even standing by while the beatings are going on. All of this, the report by Human Rights Watch says, is “in stark contrast to government reassurances.”
The report further states that illegal migrants “were routinely discouraged from filing official complaints,” and that “the police told some victims they would have to pay a fee to file a complaint.” In addition, it says, the police told some victims to fight back themselves.
“We have hundreds of reports from people who are beaten while policemen were standing there doing nothing,” said Thanassis Kourkoulas, the spokesman for Expel Racism, an immigrant support group. He said officers had been accused of assaulting immigrants in police stations and of giving the telephone number of Golden Dawn to citizens who called with complaints about crime and immigrants.
Credit: New York Times