July 5, 2012
On the night of the 17 June elections, a Pakistani man was beaten and stabbed by a group of young men in Athens. Earlier the same day, two Algerians were attacked by four men with iron bars, wooden bats and knives on Crete. A few days later, my Somali interpreter was chased down the street in Athens; his hand was broken when he tried to protect his head.
Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch

A Senegalese asylum-seeker attacked in Athens by a gang of thugs spoke for many when he told me: “We take Europe as an example for democracy and solidarity. Now, if we, who live here among you, if we get killed on the street like chickens ...I think it's a pity for the Europeans.” I had to agree. 

In Greece, migrants and asylum-seekers are being dragged off buses, chased, beaten and stabbed. Most attacks take place at night; the attackers work in groups, often obscuring their faces with cloth or with helmets, and frequently wielding clubs or bottles.

On the night of the 17 June elections, a Pakistani man was beaten and stabbed by a group of young men in Athens. Earlier the same day, two Algerians were attacked by four men with iron bars, wooden bats and knives on Crete. A few days later, my Somali interpreter was chased down the street in Athens; his hand was broken when he tried to protect his head.

Arrests are rare, police inaction the general rule. Many victims are actively discouraged from filing complaints, told by officers that it is not worth their while or that they should fight back or that, if they are undocumented migrants, they could be locked up themselves.

Those who insist face a €100 fee to file an official complaint. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has been convicted of a racist attack under a 2008 hate-crimes law.

How did a country renowned for its hospitality become so inhospitable? Geography, politics, and the economic crisis are all part of the answer. But the European Union shares responsibility, and has a stake in what is happening.

Over the past decade, Greece has become the major gateway into the EU for undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers from Asia and Africa. An estimated 300 people irregularly cross the border from Turkey every day. This migration flow, the EU's Dublin II regulation on migration and EU pressure on Greece to secure its borders have helped create what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described in 2010 as a “humanitarian crisis.” Countless undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers live in destitution, occupying abandoned buildings, streets and even forests.

Nationalist, far-right parties such as Golden Dawn have gained strength and popularity largely because they exploit anti-immigrant sentiment and concerns among voters about rising crime and urban degradation. Having won a seat on the Athens city council in 2010, Golden Dawn secured enough votes on 17 June to enter the national parliament for the first time. It is not just Golden Dawn's rhetoric that gives cause for concern.

The party has been tied to the self-styled “citizens' groups” of vigilantes widely believed to be involved in the attacks on foreigners. Party members have also been implicated in assaults.

Greece needs the EU's help. EU institutions and individual member states should remind Greece of its obligations to combat violence. But it should also reform the Dublin regulation, which obliges the first EU state an asylum-seeker sets foot in to take responsibility for the person. The burden this places on Greece is unfair.

Above all, those who engage in violence need to be held to account. The EU can do something by providing technical and financial assistance. The police need training, guidelines, and resources. Police and prosecutors need a centralised database to ensure that xenophobic crimes are recorded and tracked. Prosecutors and judges need specialised training.

Despite his beating, the Senegalese man I spoke to remained hopeful: “Europe can solve all of this. If a law exists, it has to be applied. If Europe knew [what was happening], then they would be able to do something about it, no?”

Judith Sunderland is author of a Human Rights Watch report “Hate on the streets: xenophobic violence in Greece”, which will be published on July 10.