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Xenophobia has soared in Greece, a country in the midst of a deep economic crisis and on the front line of immigration into the European Union. The upsurge of violence this year has left migrants and asylum seekers—many of whom have fled war zones—afraid to walk the streets of Athens at night for fear of being attacked.

But after Human Rights Watch issued a report on the issue, Greece announced plans to establish a new police unit to deal with racial violence. The justice minister also promised stiffer sentences for hate crimes. Both were key recommendations from our report.  

Saleh Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Somali who acted as an interpreter for Human Rights Watch during research for this report, was chased down the street in Athens by five men in June 2012. They caught him and beat with a piece of wood. His hand was broken when he tried to shield his head from the blows.

Ibrahim did not report the crime because he believed the police would not help him. But hopefully in the near future, other asylum seekers will trust the police to investigate their cases and hold their attackers accountable.

During the research for our recent report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece,”we spoke with dozens of migrants and asylum seekers, including two pregnant women who had experiences like Ibrahim’s.

Greece has become a major gateway into the European Union for migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Most travel across Turkey to reach Greece, where they seek a better life and a safe haven. At a time when Greece is struggling with its debt, the increase in immigrants has fanned support for the far-right Golden Dawn party, which was voted into Parliament last June.

Violence against these migrants has surged, yet in July, when we issued our report, the Greek police had no strategy to prevent attacks or protect immigrants. They had yet to prosecute a single person under a hate crimes law passed in 2008 to deter racial violence. Instead, authorities had taken a “blame the victims” approach–even going so far as to charge victims €100 to report a crime. Some police told victims they should learn to fight back and that undocumented migrants would be detained if they insisted on an investigation.

Meanwhile, groups of dark-clad, masked attackers have continued to target migrants and asylum seekers on Athens’ streets.

We are encouraged by the government’s response to our demands that it step up and stop the violence. But the problem is far from resolved. We will monitor the situation to make sure Greek officials follow up these promises with action. We are asking authorities to make clear that they will investigate and prosecute these crimes, deploy officers to hot spots for violence, and offer police and prosecutors training on how to prevent and respond to xenophobic violence. We want to ensure that undocumented migrants will never face detention or deportation for reporting a crime, a key reason why so many do not seek help from the police.

To Ibrahim and other migrants, a strong stance by the Greek government could make a huge difference. Ibrahim told us he would have been able to identify his assailants but he was afraid to go to the police as an undocumented migrant.

“They [the police] know the situation, they know all the problems,” he told us. “We need some rules. We need big steps. This country needs it, this country deserves it.” 

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