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When I tell people in Athens, my hometown, that I am doing research on racist violence in Greece, I am met with disbelief. There’s no problem, they say, and even if things sometimes happen it’s a temporary blip linked to the economic crisis.

The Greek government seems to share their view. It recorded only two hate crimes in the whole country in 2009 and one in 2008. More recent figures are not available.

I experienced the reality firsthand a week ago. I was interviewing Razia, an Afghan single mother, in the small apartment she shares with her three children in Aghios Panteleimonas square in Athens about the numerous attacks on her home since she moved in a year and a half earlier. Other Afghan migrants were visiting her the day I was there.

Suddenly masked thugs, who had been gathering outside, threw heavy objects at the front door, cracking the thick glass. During the few minutes the attack lasted, I could see the silhouettes of the attackers. People panicked and backed away from the windows, as the apartment is on the ground floor of the building, while Razia gathered up her scared children.

When the police came, they told Razia that she would have to come to the station to file an official complaint. She did. But even though the police station is less than 300 meters from her home, the apartment was attacked again on the following two nights. On the second night, someone sprayed cooking gas inside the apartment through the cracks of the broken window and tried unsuccessfully to set it alight.

“They wanted to burn us alive,” Razia told me later. “The windows and the door were broken.” She added that “we recognized” the man who did it. “He lives in a building next to this place and he always has a dog with him.”

She said that she identified one of the attackers to the officers who responded to her call, but that the police took no action. That same night she and her children moved out.

Greek residents in the neighborhood confirmed accounts from migrants that a group of vigilantes wearing hoods and masks gather nightly in Aghios Panteleimonas square at around 9 o’clock. Everyone knows who they are.

The family’s terrifying experience is part of wider epidemic of such violence in the Greek capital. Migrants and asylum seekers whom I and my colleagues from Human Rights Watch interviewed spoke of virtual no-go areas in Athens after dark because of the risk of attacks by vigilante groups. An association of Afghans in Greece provides newly arrived Afghan migrants with a map marked in red for areas to avoid.

The Pakistani Community of Greece, an association of immigrants, documented attacks on 60 Pakistani men in the first three months of 2011. Far-right extremists rampaged through immigrant neighborhoods in May, leaving at least 25 people hospitalized for stab wounds or severe beatings.

In September, a 24-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan was assaulted in Athens. Three of his attackers are set to stand trial, in the first such prosecution in Greece in years.

While Razia and her children are safe for the moment, the attacks in the area around her former apartment have continued. Two Afghan men were attacked in the same area by a group of about 15 people and had to seek hospital treatment. Thugs have also attacked the Internet café next door to Razia’s apartment that is owned by an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. One time, someone sprayed “Foreigners Out” in big blue letters on the café shutters while another time, the glass storefront was smashed.

Since everyone in the neighborhood seems to know about this group, why is it that the police officers at the station 300 meters away don’t prevent the attacks or catch the attackers? In part the answer lies with ordinary Greeks. The people responsible for the violence depend on the “passive participation” of those who tolerate it. In part the answer lies with the government, which needs to acknowledge Greece’s problem with racist violence openly and make combating it a political priority.

In short, the police and prosecutors have to do more than simply take reports. The attackers will back off only in the face of rapid police response, diligent investigations and successful prosecutions of attackers. Razia and her children deserve nothing less.

Eva Cossé is a research assistant for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. 

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