Last year was very tough for Greece, and there are few prospects that 2013 will be easier. Millions of people have been directly affected by the sweeping austerity measures arising from the economic crisis. The country is convulsed by political tensions, with the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party the most worrying example. And there are severe social problems, linked in part to the huge influx in recent years of irregular migrants from outside the European Union.
Partly hidden within this turmoil is another crisis threatening to spin out of control – xenophobic violence against migrants and asylum seekers in Athens and elsewhere. Violence against people from Afghanistan and North and sub-Saharan Africa is alarmingly commonplace, much of it going unrecorded.
This is an issue that Greece, along with its allies in the European Union, needs to tackle as a priority this year. The attacks themselves are a major abuse of human rights. But the fact that they usually happen with impunity, with little or no serious effort by the police or others to bring the culprits to justice, is an indictment on Europe’s Nobel-prize-winning image as a bastion for peace.
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of such attacks between November 2011 and mid-2012. They continue. On January 16, a 27-year-old Pakistani man was fatally stabbed by two men on motorcycles in Athens. In this case, the police acted swiftly, arresting two men the next day. Golden Dawn leaflets were reportedly found in the home of one of the suspects.
Many people in Greece, including some in power, would prefer to ignore this part of the country’s crisis, contending that there are already too many problems or that the issue will be resolved once the country’s dysfunctional asylum system is reformed and the economy picks up.
These excuses, while partly understandable, are worrying, as they paper over a growing intolerance that is already spreading to other vulnerable groups, such as the gay and lesbian community.
What is even more disturbing is that intense public hostility has entered mainstream politics, perhaps for fear of a populist backlash from Golden Dawn. At a hearing in the Greek parliament in November at which we presented findings on xenophobic violence, one ruling party member of parliament labelled foreigners coming to Greece “cockroaches.”
Greece has taken modest steps to tackle the problem. In December, for instance, a proposal was adopted to set up specialist police units to tackle racist violence in Athens and Thessaloniki. While it’s a positive step, the initiative is both too narrow and too vague, lacking key details on how these units will operate, how undocumented victims will be protected from being detained, and how officers will be trained. Proof of Greece’s determination will be in the full implementation of such proposals, especially given the country’s poor record in turning new laws into action.
The EU’s relations with Greece are dominated by the Eurozone crisis and efforts to work with Athens to improve its asylum policy. Yet such widespread racist violence cannot be ignored. In November, senior Greek officials told us they were open to using financial and technical assistance from the European Commission to tackle the problem. The Commission should be more active in making clear what’s available.
Individual member states like Germany and France have a part to play in this. Both countries are already working with Greece on structural reforms as active participants in the EU’s Task Force for Greece. The Task Force was created in October 2011 to facilitate technical assistance to Greece in a number of areas, including judicial reform and migration and asylum policy. It should be possible to include practical co-operation on tackling violence against migrants into this ongoing work.
Capitals across the EU could more actively press for making xenophobic violence in Greece a priority on the EU agenda, and in the long term support deeper reform of EU rules that oblige the first EU state an asylum-seeker sets foot in to take responsibility for that person. This system places an unfair burden on Greece and arguably has contributed to exacerbating social tensions.
It would be a scandal if racist attacks on Athens streets are still commonplace a year from now. Greece, but also the EU and its member states, should do more to ensure this does not happen.
Judith Sunderland is a senior researcher on Western Europe at Human Rights Watch and author of ‘Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece’ (July 2012).
Hugh Williamson is the Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia.