New Government Should Act to Prevent, Punish Xenophobic Attacks
July 10, 2012
People coming from war zones are scared to go out at night in Athens for fear of being attacked. The economic crisis and migration cannot excuse Greece’s failure to tackle violence that is tearing at its social fabric.
Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch

(Athens) – The Greek authorities are failing to tackle a rising wave of xenophobic violence that has left migrants afraid to walk the streets. 

The 99-page report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece,”documents the failure of the police and the judiciary to prevent and punish rising attacks on migrants. Despite clear patterns to the violence and evidence that it is increasing, the police have failed to respond effectively to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account, Human Rights Watch found. Authorities have yet to develop a preventive policing strategy, while victims are discouraged from filing official complaints. No one has been convicted under Greece’s 2008 hate crime statute.

“People coming from war zones are scared to go out at night in Athens for fear of being attacked,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The economic crisis and migration cannot excuse Greece’s failure to tackle violence that is tearing at its social fabric.”

In a country suffering a deep economic crisis, and after years of mismanaged migration and asylum policies, gangs of Greeks attack migrants and asylum seekers in central Athens and elsewhere in the country with frightening regularity, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 people who experienced or escaped a xenophobic incident, including 51 serious attacks, between August 2009 and May 2012. Victims of serious attacks included migrants and asylum seekers of nine nationalities and two pregnant women.


Most attacks take place at night, on or near town squares. Attackers work in groups, and are often dressed in dark clothing with their faces obscured by cloth or helmets. Some of them arrive and flee on motorcycles. Bare-fisted attacks are not uncommon, but attackers also often wield clubs or beer bottles as weapons. Most attacks are accompanied by insults and exhortations to leave Greece, and in some cases the attackers also rob the victims.  

At least seven serious attacks in Athens and the island of Crete have been reported in the media since May alone. But untold numbers of attacks never make it into the news, Human Rights Watch found, including the case of Sahel Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Somali who served as a translator for Human Rights Watch.

Ibrahim was attacked on June 22 in Aghios Panteleimonas, a central Athens neighborhood where many assaults take place. He was chased down the street by five men he believes were in their early 20s and beaten with a heavy piece of wood. His hand was broken as he tried to protect his head during the attack.

Ibrahim says he would recognize his assailants, but he is fearful of going to the police because he is an undocumented migrant and does not believe it would do any good. “I don’t believe they [the police] can help me,” Ibrahim said. “They know the situation, they know all the problems. Why are they still sitting [around]? We need some rules. We need big steps. This country needs it, this country deserves it.” 

Human Rights Watch called on the new government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to take immediate steps to counter xenophobic violence, including: 

  • Showing leadership by publicly condemning xenophobic violence and indicating that there will be zero tolerance for vigilante violence against migrants;
  • Deploying adequate police officers to known hot spots to prevent attacks and to arrest attackers in the act;
  • Improving the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes by police and prosecutors through training, better guidelines, and a centralized police database;
  • Ensuring that undocumented migrants never face the threat of detention or deportation for reporting a hate crime.


The European Union has an important role to play, Human Rights Watch said. EU institutions should closely analyze the phenomenon of xenophobic violence in Greece, and offer concrete assistance to Greek authorities, including financial and technical assistance, to help them address the problem. 

A number of arrests in connection with recent attacks, including of alleged members of the far-right-wing party Golden Dawn, are a positive exception to the general rule of police inaction, Human Rights Watch said. Although police were instructed in a 2006 ministerial circular to pay special attention to racist crimes, victims consistently told Human Rights Watch that the police discouraged them from filing complaints. 

Human Rights Watch found that some undocumented migrants who tried to report attacks were told by police they would be detained if they persisted in trying to have a criminal investigation opened. Told that an investigation would be  pointless if they could not positively identify the attackers, encouraged to accept a simple apology, or told to fight back themselves, many victims of xenophobic attacks simply give up on seeking justice, Human Rights Watch found. 

Those who persist are told they must pay a €100 feeto file an official complaint. Greece introduced this fee in late 2010 to discourage frivolous complaints. This fee should never be levied on those who report hate crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

No one has been convicted of a racist attack under a 2008 provision defining racist motivation as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime. A landmark trial of two men and one woman for the stabbing of an Afghan asylum seeker, Ali Rahimi, began in September 2011. It has been postponed six times, and it is still unclear whether, at its next hearing, scheduled for September 2012, the prosecutor will push for the highest possible sentence because of racist motivation. The woman defendant ran unsuccessfully for office in the recent national elections on the Golden Dawn ticket.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has become the major gateway into the European Union for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. Years of mismanaged migration and asylum policies and, more recently, the deep economic crisis, have changed the demographics of the capital city. The center of Athens, in particular, has a large population of foreigners living in extreme poverty, occupying abandoned buildings, town squares, and parks. Concerns about rising crime and urban degradation have become a dominant feature of everyday conversations as well as political discourse. 

So-called citizens’ groups have organized in certain areas to “protect” and “cleanse” the neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods is Aghios Panteleimonas, in the very heart of Athens, where “citizens” locked a local playground, on a square right next to an imposing church, a few years ago to prevent foreigners from spending time there. The padlock is still on the gate. 

Nationalist, far right-wing parties such as Golden Dawn have in recent years gained strength and popularity largely because of their exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment. Having gained a seat on the Athens city council in 2010, Golden Dawn secured enough votes in the June 2012 national elections to enter Parliament for the first time. It will have 18 seats (out of 300).

Although no known police analysis or court ruling has linked the citizens’ groups or Golden Dawn with groups carrying out violent attacks on migrants and asylum seekers, there is some evidence to suggest that the attackers are members of or associated with these groups. This evidence includes the affiliation of the defendant in the Rahimi case and the arrest of Golden Dawn members on suspicion of involvement in several attacks. 

Government statistics on hate crimes are wholly unreliable, Human Rights Watch said. In the entire country, the Greek government reported just two hate crimes in 2009, and only one in 2008. In May, however, Human Rights Watch was told by a Greek official that nine cases in Athens from 2011 were under investigation as possible hate crimes. Non-governmental organizations and media reports help to provide a fuller picture. A monitoring network of nongovernmental organizations coordinated by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the independent National Commission for Human Rights recorded 63 incidents between October and December 2011 in Athens and Patras.

“Attacks on migrants and asylum seekers are intended to send a message: you are not wanted here, go away,” Sunderland said. “To stop this violence, the state needs to send an equally powerful message: xenophobic violence has no place in a democratic society, and you will be punished.”